Poor in the suburbs


Where is poverty growing fastest, in Ohio and across the nation? Not in hard-pressed central cities such as Toledo or Cleveland or Detroit. Not in often-neglected rural communities, in Appalachia and elsewhere.

Since the turn of the century, a new study reports, the largest, fastest-growing segment of poor Americans lives in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas such as Toledo — including communities that are considered affluent, or at least comfortable. Most poor people in these metro areas now reside in suburbs.

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Many of these suburbs are represented by federal and state lawmakers who are building careers on showing their indifference — or hostility — to poor people. It’s time for a better approach to fighting poverty in all kinds of communities.

The study by the Brookings Institution — a private, nonpartisan research and policy group — finds that suburban poverty crosses the usual political divisions of red for Republican and blue for Democrat. The Great Recession devastated Republican and Democratic districts alike, whether it was reflected in the loss of manufacturing jobs in Midwestern metro areas such as Toledo, or the crash of the housing market in Sun Belt regions.

In fact, the study says, suburbs in Republican districts endured greater increases in poverty in the past decade than those in Democratic districts. Democrats still tend to represent poorer suburbs than Republicans, researchers found, but that gap has narrowed. So both parties have an incentive to attack suburban poverty.

The trend is evident in U.S. House districts in the Toledo region, as they existed before last year’s reapportionment:

● In the 9th District, represented by Democrat Marcy Kaptur and including the city of Toledo, the suburban-poor population rose by 70.5 percent from 2000 to 2011. The district’s suburban poverty rate rose by 6 percentage points during that period, to 14.3 percent.

● In the largely suburban 5th District, represented by Republican Bob Latta, the suburban-poor population rose by 61.8 percent, and the suburban poverty rate by 3.6 points, to 10.4 percent.

● In the exurban 4th District, represented by Republican Jim Jordan, the suburban-poor population rose by 44.5 percent. The suburban poverty rate rose by 2.9 percentage points, to 10.8 percent.

The authors of the Brookings study argue that the federal policies created to help people in poor communities don’t match up well with poverty’s new suburban geography. They note that poverty, wherever it exists, isn’t high on the agenda of the current Congress.

To the contrary, many GOP lawmakers from suburban districts want to slash programs that help poor Americans, such as food stamps and Medicaid. They seek to block the expansion of health insurance that Obamacare would provide. These elected officials need to explain why they are pursuing policies that would harm so many of their constituents.

The Brookings study argues that Republicans and Democrats should invest scarce federal resources for such things as education, health care, housing, and economic development in places where poverty is growing. The authors sensibly call for more flexibility in the application of such resources, so that states can make the best use of programs that help central cities and suburbs.

Some residents of Toledo suburbs seem to think they can wall themselves off from the contagion of poverty if they keep TARTA buses out of their communities. They’re wrong. Their neighbors already include poor people, and they need help.

The Brookings study suggests that suburban poverty may recede as the economy recovers, but it won’t go away. All Americans — elected officials and their constituents — must unite to address that challenge.