Poverty’s “New Face”

A Star Tribune story about a suburban food shelf has the headline “The New Face of Poverty.”  It is certainly true, once upon a time the suburbs represented affluence or at least upward mobility.  They were signs of growing prosperity and synonymous with the American Dream.

That’s not always true anymore.  In fact well before the 2008 financial crisis, one could see signs of the change.  Suburbs were changing.  Less and less were they about a sense of place and community and membership therein, they became land grabs, investments, showplaces.  It wasn’t enough to have a solid home in a community, more and more people sought the most they could squeeze out of a middle-class budget and went racing to the horizons to buy that stilted dream.

The result?  Poorly planned developments miles from city centers, miles from city jobs.  In recent years the trend for the wealthy has been to move closer to city centers whether for jobs or the conveniences that can be found there.  Young job seekers and empty-nester retirees alike find more convenience — and opportunity — closer to the city.  Millennials in particular express a trend toward urban lifestyles and embrace both the limits and the benefits of that lifestyle.

So who is going to live in the ex-urban wastes we have built?  Less and less those people will be there by choice.  They will be there out of necessity.  Driving through some of these “communities” 25-30 miles outside of the city, I often cracked a cynical and not-so-funny joke about the places, referring to them as the slums of the future.  And I think I am right, at least in part.

One only needs to drive through the affluent western suburbs of Minneapolis to see wealth enjoying a splendid existence beyond the city core, however that lifestyle is not inherent with a country home.  Life in country manor will never quite be the same as life in a cheap tract home at the end of a vacant cul-de-sac.

So yes, perhaps this is a “new face” of poverty.  I don’t find it surprising.  However I am struck by how this so-called new face of poverty is framed.  It is presented as a crises atop a crisis.  Poverty, after all, is supposed to be an urban problem, right?  And look!  It is happening now in the suburbs!  Unsaid here is an observation that poverty used to be about those other people, now it is happening to us, to my tribe:  The supposedly-middle-class suburbanite.

The middle class is taking a beating.  Prosperity, wealth, and opportunity are less and less equally available and distributed.  That’s a political problem we don’t have the smarts or the will to correct.  But the real story here — what really is new — is not so much who is poor (although it should be), but why poverty is moving the suburbs.  No doubt it is significant that once middle-class demographics don’t have the opportunity of preceding generations, but as developers regain traction and start again building sloppy exurban housing…one almost has to stop and ask, is that by design?  It is like pushing the poor beyond the gates of the city.  Maybe?

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