A New Portrait of Suburbia

The Brookings Institution, a renowned public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., recently released an analysis based on census data collected from 2000-2008. The report sheds new light on problems that the 100 largest metropolitan areas could face.

These areas account for two-thirds of the United States population and any changes could affect the nation politically, economically and socially.

The findings establish the Institution’s broad demographic portrait of the country since the year 2000, when America faced some of the worst and best times – first, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, followed by a historic boom in the real estate market and concluded with the worst economic downfall since the Great Depression.

This new report may provide a revised road map, crucial to political parties as they battle to gain votes in suburban battlegrounds. Many U.S. Presidents, including President Obama, received a lot of support from these areas and were elected with the help of minorities and immigrants.

“Suburban voters tend to be more affluent than urban voters,” said professor of political science  Katherine Tate. “The economic crisis has made the electorate more volatile, with incumbents targeted for defeat. Thus, the suburban vote is up for grabs, but the suburban-urban divide in American politics will persist.”

The data included is also part of an updated investigation in the nation’s growing race and age divide. This is the main issue that is currently fueling protests in Arizona over its new immigration law. Led by Arizona, ten states are reported to surpass the rest of the nation in a “cultural generation gap.” Such a gap occurs when the younger population mostly consists of minorities, as whites disproportionately comprise the senior generation. This is most prominently seen in the suburbs of swiftly emerging areas in the Southwest, including California.

According to the surprising report, the suburbs house the largest poor population in the country. The suburban poor grew by 25 percent, which is five times the growth rate of the poor in cities.

However, UCI economics professor Jan Brueckner warned that it may not be as extreme as these figures portray. Most of the suburban poverty is found centered in older suburbs that border central cities. More importantly, the poor in the suburbs are said to be more likely to have income figures right below the poverty line, while most of the urban poor live in “deep” poverty.

“The suburban poor populations may be growing fast in percentage terms, but they are starting at a relatively low level. U.S. cities don’t yet look like Paris, where the center is rich and the suburbs poor, and it is unlikely that they ever will,”  Brueckner said.

The study is still very alarming, especially as the Brookings Institution uncovers more problems associated with baby boomers aged 55 to 64.

The vast majority of this fast-growing group lives in suburban areas and, when the first wave turns 65 next year, they are expected to strain social services. Although suburbs still tilt white, the majority of immigrant groups live outside the city for the first time. In 2000, Asians and Hispanics already peaked at 50 percent and, subsequently, blacks joined them, rising over 43 percent by 2008.

Experts attribute this racial shift from the cities to the suburbs to two main things. First, a significant number of minorities are reportedly migrating away from the cities. This, however, may be driven primarily by natural disasters.
For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many blacks were forced to leave New Orleans and other large metropolitan areas. Second, some whites are now staying put within cities instead of moving out to suburbia, while many suburban whites seem to be favoring large cities again as they decide to return back to the urban lifestyle.
The Brookings report also found that the number of whites now living in the city has risen dramatically. The white population in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta is up by five percent, which is the largest increase posted in the nation. New York, Boston, and San Francisco saw similar gains.

“A new image of urban America is in the making,” said William H. Frey, who co-wrote the Brookings Institution report. “What used to be white flight to the suburbs is turning into “bright flight” to cities that have become magnets for aspiring young adults who see access to knowledge-based jobs, public transportation, and a new city ambiance as an attraction.”

Frey continued to say that, while this is not likely to be the future for all metropolitan areas, the pattern seen in large, influential cities, including Atlanta and Boston, proves that preconceived urban stereotypes are being shattered.
There is also the issue of the expansion of neighborhoods. Particularly in less fashionable areas, older housing quickly loses its value relative to newer communities. Only the wealthy can afford the latest housing; thus, the tenants of the original housing projects become poorer. The area grows more slowly and the demand for housing then falls, which causes such neighborhoods to further decline. This pattern is well-documented within cities, and it has gradually spread to suburbia.

UCI sociology professor Susan Brown believes that such trends began decades ago and suburbs are simply continuing along the same cycle.

“After Southern California’s economy began to shed manufacturing jobs in the early 1990s, the exodus of the native-born sped up and it was mainly immigrants that kept up the population. The loss of so many middle-class citizens to other regions has led to greater inequality in housing and greater economic segregation,”  Brown said.
“The city/suburb dichotomies may not be so important, at least here in Southern California, but the growing economic inequality is terrible for everyone in the long run,” Brown said.

The Brookings study further went on to reveal that about 83 percent of the U.S. population growth since 2000 was minority, part of a trend that predicts ethnic groups will become the majority by middle of this century.

The report recommends a new federal policy agenda that confronts the concerns for metropolitan communities. They offer a few suggestions to reduce the income inequality in the United States – providing affordable housing and social services for the suburban elderly, planning a greater coordination between housing and transportation, and designing a federal Office of New Americans to elevate local integration efforts and help serve various education and citizenship needs of the rapidly increasing immigrant population.