Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The crumbling suburbs

Many people grew up with the notion that the middle class lived in the suburbs, and except for some upscale enclaves, the cities were the land of impoverishment.  To the extent they were thought about, the areas outside the cities were bucolic farmer homesteads where large smiling, slightly heavy people rode around on tractors pulling unusual devices behind them, and then using vacuum cleaner-like harvesters to pick it all up in the fall.

We have already discussed the increasing impoverishment and problems of rural United States and Canada (and even Argentina).   It is not always the place you may think it is.
Suburbia is also beginning to fade.
Elizabeth Kneebone and Emily Garr, Brookings Institute, January 2010.
The latest data confirm that, since 2000 and in the wake of two national economic downturns, poverty has increased significantly in metropolitan and non-metropolitan communities alike. However, while poverty has grown on the whole, the most recent data also make clear that American poverty is becoming an increasingly suburban phenomenon. Suburbs in the nation’s largest metro areas are now home to the fastest-growing and largest poor population in the country—a reality that is not likely to change in the coming years given both the longer run and more near term factors that have contributed to this shift in the geography of American poverty.
Among these factors, not surprisingly, jobs play an important role in shaping these trends. Since the late 1990s jobs in almost every major metro area have continued to shift away from the urban core toward the metropolitan fringe, regardless of industry or whether the regional job market was expanding or contracting.29 Forthcoming research finds that metro areas with higher levels of employment decentralization over this decade also tend to exhibit a greater “suburbanization” of poverty, but that on average the suburban poor are slightly less likely than their non-poor counterparts to live in jobs-rich neighborhoods.30 As employment opportunities increasingly locate in the outer reaches of metropolitan areas, it makes sense that low-wage workers would also make up a growing presence outside primary cities. However, not all suburbs are the same or offer similar opportunities. The variation in housing affordability across suburban communities may limit the extent to which these workers can live near where they work just as transportation availability can determine the accessibility of distant job centers. Thus, certain metro areas may find that these decentralizing trends exacerbate challenges associated

If you are curious about your local metro area an extensive listing is found in an Appendix to the report here:  Appendix Link (pdf)
Granted that many of the cities of the New South, except for the distances involved, are difficult to distinguish from their surrounding suburbs.  They are often very low density affairs.  In North Carolina, cities have been allowed to forcibly expand their boundaries to gobble up the unincorporated suburbs- turning suburbs into cities.  So what you have is a depopulating inner core, and a depopulating rural countryside, and an ever expanding of , now often poor, sprawl.
The liberal Brookings Institute, naturally, worries about servicing this widely scattered poor.  I agree with them.  I would extend their concern to include all the people who will become poor when the cost of fuel increases to the point that all of this outlying commuting becomes too expensive to maintain.
One plausible scenario is that business will move back to the core to become more accessible.  That will take money.  The wealthy will either move back in to (fashionable) parts of the cities to be close to business, or continue to live out in far suburbia as they can afford the commute.  But this leaves a huge belt of (presumably) lower income sprawl.  With the inherent difficult of newly cash strapped outlying municipalities trying to service this sprawl, the new suburban decay might look a lot worse than our old friend- urban decay.

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