Data Points: What does suburban poverty look like in Chicagoland? - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Data Points: What does suburban poverty look like in Chicagoland?

Between 2010-2016, the number of people experiencing poverty in our region's suburbs increased by 54 percent

Flickr user MBA Photography

In March 2017, the Metropolitan Planning Council released its findings from The Cost of Segregation study, revealing that Chicago area residents pay a staggeringly high price for the racial inequity in our region. But what about other cities? In order to investigate the ways in which peer regions are tackling the high costs of segregation, MPC led a group of government and civic leaders last November to Seattle, a city on the front lines of addressing inequity through policy.

Seattle and Chicago differ in key ways, perhaps most notably that the Seattle region is much whiter and wealthier than Chicago. Still, the Emerald City holds lessons for the Windy City, especially around a phenomena discussed widely in recent years: the suburbanization of poverty.

MPC analysis of American Community Survey (ACS) population data between 2010 and 2016 finds that, in the same period that Seattle’s share of people living below the poverty line dropped 1 percentage point, Chicago’s share increased by 10 percentage points. Poverty in Chicago’s suburbs has grown at a rapid pace, while it has notably slowed in Seattle during the same period.

As of 2016, 56 percent of the Chicago region’s population living below the federal poverty rate lived in the suburbs. In Seattle, this share is much larger: 77 percent. But between 2010 and 2016, Chicago’s population of suburban residents living below the poverty line increased by 270,000 people, representing a 54-percent increase, while in contrast Seattle increased its share by 45,000 people, a 16-percent increase.

Slower growth among suburban residents experiencing poverty in Seattle could underscore an earlier timeframe of displacement, compared to Chicago: most residents that would likely have been displaced to the Seattle suburbs post-2010 may already have been priced out of the city in the decade prior. Over time, the Seattle area—which was already very white and wealthy in the early 2000’s—has grown whiter and wealthier as long-term renters have been priced out as a result of the tech sector’s influence on the housing market.

While Seattle may be—at least temporarily—at the end of an arc in terms of the growth of suburban poverty, we have reason to believe that Chicago may be at the beginning.  

In some respects, the suburbanization of poverty has been well-documented: a Brookings analysis last year revealed that Chicago and Seattle both experienced above-average growth from 2000 to 2015 in their shares of residents in suburban areas living below the federal poverty line. But our examination of the most recently available data dove deeper, analyzing growth at various levels of poverty, and for different racial groups.

Increases in low-income populations in both regions have occurred for all four major racial groups——at 50, 100, 150, and 200 percent of the federal poverty line, but some groups have been more impacted than others.

Suburban poverty for Latino/as in Chicago increased by 72 percent over only 6 years

While we discovered a 54-percent increase in suburban poverty between 2010 and 2016 in Chicago, our analysis further revealed that just over a third of this quantity (34 percent) was due to growth in suburban Latino/a populations living below the federal poverty line.

In fact, over the 6-year period in question, there was a 72-percent increase in the population of Latino/a residents in Chicago’s suburbs below 100 percent of the federal poverty line. 72 percent.

Such a rise in so short a time span for just one racial/ethnic group indicates much closer attention needs to be paid to what’s going on here. Meriting more research, contributing factors could include the suburbanization of jobs, response to high levels of violence in the city, and displacement due to rising rents and gentrification. It should be noted that this trend was not only limited to median levels of poverty; substantial increases were also noted at 150 and 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

Suburban poverty growth for Latino/as and Asians outpaced total suburban poverty growth in Seattle

A similar pattern has emerged in the Seattle suburbs, though not as pronounced as Chicago’s trend line. Growth in both Latino/a and Asian populations below the poverty line outpaced the total growth of the population living in poverty during the 6 years that we examined. Seattle recorded 16-percent growth in total suburban poverty, while poverty for Latino/as and Asians increased by 20 and 34 percent, respectively. As with the Chicago region, these trends also held for the population living below 150 percent and 200 percent of the poverty line.

Part of the trends above can be explained by an overall growth in poverty—in the city and suburbs—among Latino/as in both regions, and among Asians in the Seattle region. However, MPC finds the suburban component of this growth particularly notable, especially when the rise in suburban poverty is at least in part a result of failures to counteract an inequitable housing market that displaces long-time residents of color.

As former Director of Research Alden Loury noted in his January 2017 analysis comparing Chicago and Seattle, it can be harder for communities to organize and ally in the face of greater geographic dispersion, weakening political power for economic and racial minorities. And suburban public transit networks tend to be thinner, which can decrease access to jobs, healthcare and social services.

Elizabeth Kneebone at Brookings notes several drivers of this trend at the national scale, including growing overall suburban populations, trends in increased housing costs within city limits, and the relocation of jobs—especially lower-wage jobs—to new suburban locations. An MPC analysis found that in 2010, almost 33 percent of working residents in majority-black communities of Chicago were employed in the healthcare and social services or educational services sectors: the same types of jobs that are moving to suburban areas. That combination may have pushed some lower-wage workers to the suburbs, where earnings are similar but the cost of living is higher, and where limited transportation options might require families to buy and maintain personal vehicles rather than relying on cost-effective public transit.

With these unique equity challenges in mind, MPC this past May released Our Equitable Future, a roadmap of policy recommendations to address racial inequities, which could help reverse the trend of suburban poverty and assist vulnerable populations. Strategies like considering equity as a key measure for transportation planning and helping local governments build capacity would help reduce the economic and social isolation often experienced by people experiencing poverty in the suburbs.  We firmly believe that for a region to take pride in its racial and economic diversity as Chicago rightfully does, we must ensure that residents can experience economic mobility no matter where they live, and as such, we continue to work with dedicated stakeholders throughout the region towards a more equitable future.

The learning expeditions to Seattle and Atlanta were made possible through the generous support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Enterprise Community Partners and the Ford Foundation.

Learn more about MPC's Cost of Segregation-related research trips to Seattle and Atlanta:

"Data Points: Allied, not sleepless, in Seattle" by Alden Loury

"What I learned in Atlanta about equity and inclusion" by Lynnette McRae

"An Education in Equity: What unique interventions in Seattle taught MPC and partners about addressing disparities" by Kendra Freeman 


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