"United Around High Human Values"

Alexandra K. Murphy |

The University of Michigan |

Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Poverty Center |

When we think about poverty in the United States, two contrasting images usually come to mind: the inner-city and rural areas.

However, such depictions no longer fit the geography of American poverty. Today, poverty is largely a suburban phenomenon. Indeed, as of the year 2000, the greatest share of the American poor resided in the suburbs.

These trends have only worsened since the financial and foreclosure crises hit. There are many reasons for this historical shift. In some cases, suburbanites have grown poorer in place due to job loss or aging on a fixed income. In other cases, “push and pull” factors have led to population changes in the suburbs. Early on, the suburbanization of low-skill jobs pulled low-income families into the suburbs. Middle class residents have been pulled back into newly developed areas in the city or into newly developed exurbs, abandoning older, inner-ring suburbs. This has made suburban housing affordable and available to low-income families, especially those who have been forced to move either because of changes in public housing policy or because they have been priced out of gentrifying urban neighborhoods. Concurrently, patterns of immigration have changed. Rather than migrate directly to the city, immigrants now migrate directly into the suburbs. Population changes are not the only explanation for why poverty has grown in the suburbs. There have also been significant shifts in the flow of capital away from the inner-ring suburbs into newer, outer sprawling suburbs. Together, these changes have contributed to the fact that, not only are there poor people living in the suburbs, but many suburbs themselves are growing poorer.

The suburbanization of poverty raises new challenges for how we think about addressing the needs of poor people and the communities in which they live. As scholars have pointed out, suburban poverty exists in a “policy blindspot.”[6] Few policymakers recognize this pressing issue and even when they do, there are limited tools, policies, or programs in place to address it. Further, most of the philanthropic money distributed for poverty related causes is directed towards the city, not the suburbs.[7] Given how urban and rural oriented many of our antipoverty policies and programs are, what resources do suburbs have at their disposal to address their poverty problem? What strategies do they use and what challenges do they encounter in these attempts?

The answer, it turns out, varies across different types of suburbs. Though we have a popular image of what constitutes a suburb in the U.S., usually involving single family homes, white picket fences, white, middle class families, shopping malls and parking lots, suburbs are actually quite diverse. There are bedroom suburbs, manufacturing suburbs, edge cities, satellite suburbs, first-tier suburbs, at-risk suburbs, just to name a few. As one can imagine, the types of suburbs in which poverty is growing is also diverse.[8]

In what follows, I lay out a typology of suburban poverty that combines demographic, economic, ecological, and historical data with a qualitative perspective on the relational and symbolic contours of poverty in these places. How suburban residents, government officials, and civic leaders understand the poverty in their midst differs across suburbs. How politicians and grant-makers responsible for distributing the resources communities use to combat poverty perceive suburban poverty also differs across suburbs. Often, the meanings these actors make of poverty depend on a suburb’s economic, political, and racial history as well as the profile of the poverty population and the perceived causes of their poverty. Such understandings are important because they shape how local actors seek to address their poverty problem and how decisions over the distribution of resources get made.

Using interviews with the directors of nonprofit antipoverty organizations in eight suburbs outside Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, I identify three different types of suburbs where poverty has found its home: symbiotic suburbs, skeletal suburbs, and overshadowed suburbs. Suburbs were categorized according to their unique poverty dynamics, what obstacles and opportunities these dynamics posed for antipoverty organizations, and how the suburb was situated within broader metropolitan economic, political, and social networks. The category names reflect these dimensions.

Symbiotic Suburbs

Symbiotic suburbs are those suburbs that most resemble urban poor neighborhoods; poverty here is not a recent phenomenon. These suburbs have, for awhile, struggled with high poverty rates. The poor population here usually reflects the racial composition of the urban poor population, which in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia is usually African American and/or Puerto Rican. Employment and educational attainment among the population is low, while rates of single motherhood and crime are high. The built environment of symbiotic suburbs often looks more urban than it does suburban:  housing density is high and development is designed for mixed-use. Commercial establishments might also mirror the type of businesses typically associated with urban poor neighborhoods, including dollar stores, payday loans, pawn shops, bodegas, and barber shops. These suburbs are often physically located proximate to the city; public transportation is usually decent, facilitating easy travel between the suburb and the city. These suburbs are so named because of the fluidity and symbiotic nature of their relationships to the city.

The history and extent of poverty in symbiotic suburbs is widely recognized by local officials and funders. Indeed, because these places are known to house high-need poverty populations that are widely seen as worthy of attention (for example, poor children with poor health), they are often considered to be “sexy investments.” The number of antipoverty organizations here is relatively high, especially compared to other suburban types. Though these organizations benefit from the fact that poverty is known to be a problem here, and the populations they serve are deemed to be worthy of support, this dynamic also creates unique obstacles to the alleviation of poverty.

Antipoverty organizations here are often responsible for providing services to not only poor people in their suburb, but also to poor people in surrounding suburbs. Organizations find it difficult to draw these clients into their programs, however, either because they are hesitant to get help, are hard to reach, or are fearful of traveling into symbiotic suburbs because of their reputation for crime. Further, many of these organizations find themselves serving a large urban clientele comprised either of urbanites who moved to the suburb in search of a quieter life or urbanites who travel to the suburb specifically to access services there. This poses problems for organizations in symbiotic suburbs vying for support from metropolitan funders who have reserved special pots of money specifically for suburban organizations serving suburban poor residents. When funders see that organizations in symbiotic suburbs serve an urban clientele, they get pitted against larger, more well-connected organizations in the city in the competition for resources. In this race, suburban organizations find themselves at a disadvantage, as funders believe their dollars can make more of an impact going to urban organizations that tend to service a greater number of clients.

The history of poverty is thus a double edged sword in symbiotic suburbs. On the one hand, organizations benefit from its visibility. On the other, this visibility poses very real challenges to bringing in the type of clientele for which funding is intended. As a result, antipoverty organizations here engage in a delicate dance in their quest for support, one which involves demonstrating they serve a large, high-need population that includes suburban poor people living outside their boundaries.


Skeletal Suburbs

Skeletal suburbs are also deeply distressed, long marked by high rates of poverty. The source of their distress, however, differs from that of symbiotic suburbs. Skeletal suburbs were built up around thriving industries before World War II.[9] At their peak, skeletal suburbs attracted working class residents who desired home ownership, industry jobs, and suburban living.

Today, much of this industry has closed down or moved offshore, leaving the suburb a skeleton of what it once was. The housing stock is old and deteriorating, jobs and employment are rare, educational opportunities are minimal, and many, if not all, commercial establishments have closed down. Poverty in skeletal suburbs is not new; most of the poor people here have grown poorer in place following the loss of industry. Few people have moved into these places since their decimation, and population decline is significant. Skeletal suburbs closest to the city often have high black populations but are governed by white elites; those further out are less dense, mostly white, and significantly economically and socially isolated from the city and regional transportation lines.

Skeletal suburbs are widely recognized by policy makers and funders as being devastated places that house high need populations. Traditionally, they have easily been able to attract multiple types of philanthropic resources: foundations pour money into antipoverty initiatives in these places, policy-makers direct funds there, local universities provide needs assessments used by the county to establish and support programs, churches and youth groups travel here to do community service work. Skeletal suburbs do not always welcome this support with open arms, however. They hope to someday reverse their decline and so are wary of becoming dumping grounds for social services that might scare future economic development. They are also cautious about housing too many nonprofit agencies, regardless of how much they might help residents, because these organizations do not pay the much needed property taxes that could be used to attract development.

Local officials in skeletal suburbs are not the only ones wary of antipoverty organizations, so too are residents and established community institutions like churches, whom are often suspicious of the intentions of outsiders. Many residents here have a “boot-strap” mentality that emphasizes self-help – seeking social services is often seen as a sign of weakness. This can prove a challenge for antipoverty organizations doing outreach here. Also challenging is the fact that churches may have a tight lock on service provision. In the face of depopulation, many churches have struggled to survive. One way they have attempted to do so is by providing social services as a way to bring in members, thus putting them in direct competition with other service providers. Though residents, local government, and the civic sector may try to keep outside antipoverty organizations from entering the neighborhood, they are often too politically weak to actually block them.

One of the most striking features of the nonprofit landscape in skeletal suburbs is the type of organizations one finds here. Generally, those organizations that survive are either very large one-stop shop organizations that raise millions of dollars, provide services to thousands of people throughout the county, and monopolize service provision in the area, or they are branches of larger, national organizations, like the YMCA or Salvation Army. There is good reason for this. Larger nonprofit organizations have the capacity to collect data and conduct needs assessments that help them identify these areas as high need. Further, national organizations are able to raise money and stabilize funding streams for their smaller, local branches that may have a difficult time garnering individual donations. These organizations, however, do engender suspicion from local antipoverty organizations who often believe that national organizations use their suburb to attract funding for their main offices, without providing much direct services on the ground. Unlike symbiotic and overshadowed suburbs, the entrenchment of poverty in skeletal suburbs has resulted in deep cleavages, finger pointing, and suspicion among the very actors who purportedly wish to serve the community.

Though skeletal suburbs have long been the recipient of sympathy and support, the tide may be changing. After having poured millions of dollars into these places, few improvements in employment, education, poverty, or economic development have been made. Nonprofits report that funders have begun to conclude that the challenges skeletal suburbs face may be insurmountable, and so they are turning their sights increasingly onto places that may still be redeemable, like gentrifying neighborhoods in the city, abandoning skeletal suburbs to further decline.

Overshadowed Suburbs

Overshadowed suburbs are those suburbs that most subscribe to popular images of the prototypical American suburb. They are frequently bedroom suburbs that have traditionally housed affluent or middle class home owners. On the surface, the presence of poverty may be hard to detect in these places. The homes may be large and well-maintained; the commercial district may have stores that cater to the middle class. Unlike symbiotic and skeletal suburbs, poverty here is not widespread. Instead, it exists in smaller, segregated geographic pockets, like a block, neighborhood, or condo development. Sidewalks and public space are minimal; public life is rare and poverty is frequently invisible.

Overshadowed suburbs face unique challenges and opportunities when it comes to addressing these poverty pockets. Indeed, the biggest challenge often involves convincing residents and funders that poverty exists here at all! Poverty in these places is overshadowed in a number of ways. Since poverty is situated in small pockets, it is often over-looked in county-wide needs assessments. If and when funders and policy makers do turn their eyes towards poverty outside the city, these suburbs are overshadowed by the poverty and needs of symbiotic and skeletal suburbs. Poverty may also be overshadowed by the affluence around it in ways that make the suburb ineligible for much needed grants. Further, because of zoning laws and strict regulations about the location of commercial properties, antipoverty organizations are often zoned off of main streets, in homes or churches, or in storefronts with small signage. These physical barriers render antipoverty efforts invisible and encourage residents to ignore their poverty problem. Even when the signs of poverty are evident, however, antipoverty organizations report that residents and local officials may be in denial of their poverty problem, seeing their community as the affluent or middle class enclave it was once built to be.

The invisibility of poverty in overshadowed suburbs means that antipoverty organizations here do much work to show that need exists in the area, a need worthy of funding by both outside and local funders. Organizations pursue a number of strategies to make this case. They may collect their own needs assessment to demonstrate with hard data that poverty and needs exist. They may engage in educational initiatives by, for example, giving people tours of high need areas or making videos about local poverty that can be shown to churches, schools, and businesses. One resource they may have at their disposal, over and above other poor suburban types, is the presence of local corporations or businesses. Antipoverty organizations may invite influential people from these businesses to be on their board in an effort to attract resources; they must do so, however, without labeling the area as spiraling downward. If and when organizations succeed in demonstrating the suburb’s poverty problem, they admit that they have the potential to benefit from the affluence of the suburb. Unlike other suburban communities, residents here may have more disposable income to donate. Further, unlike in skeletal suburbs, churches here are a great asset. Rather than being a source of competition for people and funds, churches frequently collect donations and provide in-kind help to local antipoverty organizations.

Overshadowed suburbs also differ from symbiotic and skeletal suburbs in the increasing number of what organizations call “the new poor.” These are people who were once middle class but who may have lost their job or their home and are now struggling to make ends meet. Serving the new poor can be difficult. Though they may not be able to afford their bills, they may have too much money to qualify for federally subsidized programs. These people may be hesitant to fill out the paperwork required to qualify for services because of fear of stigma. Further, if organizations can get these clients to their doors, they report it can be hard to retain them because they do not identify with other poor people who have been long-term clients. The presence and difficulty of the new poor pose distinct challenges for antipoverty organizations in overshadowed suburbs who, in order to draw support, must demonstrate a significant clientele. This challenge can be exacerbated in overshadowed suburbs with a large presence of immigrants who may need help but are reluctant to seek services for fear of being detected.

Perhaps more so than symbiotic and skeletal suburbs, the situation of poverty in overshadowed suburbs is changing quickly. The poor are getting poorer and those once able to live comfortably in these suburbs are finding it harder, if not impossible, to do so. Built for middle class families, there is a dearth of antipoverty organizations here to meet these challenges.[10] Those that do exist must walk a fine line between drawing attention to the poverty that exists in their backyard without painting a picture that makes it look like the suburb is in a downward spiral.


To think about addressing American poverty today increasingly requires us to focus our efforts on the suburbs. But, as this typology of suburban areas shows, suburban poverty is quite diverse. Different types of suburbs and the antipoverty organizations in them face different sets of opportunities and challenges in addressing their poverty problem, and they will require different tools and resources to do so. What might work for a skeletal suburb may not be appropriate for an overshadowed suburb. We would be wise to be sensitive to these differences as we struggle with how to help poor people and the suburban communities in which they live.

The typology laid out here is, of course, not comprehensive. It is based on a small number of suburbs in one Northeastern state and may not adequately describe variants in suburban poverty in other regions, like the Southwest, which does not have the same manufacturing history and has much higher immigration rates. Despite this, it is likely that outside most American cities, we can identify middle class suburbs with pockets of poverty (overshadowed suburbs) or suburbs that share similar characteristics as depressed urban neighborhoods (symbiotic suburbs) or suburbs originally built around some type of local economy that may be in decline (skeletal suburbs). Further, these suburban types are not intended to be fixed. Suburbs and the metropolitan regions in which they are situated are in constant flux, subject to demographic, social, economic, and political shifts. Suburbs that today may be overshadowed suburbs can become symbiotic or skeletal over time, and vice versa. Categorizing suburbs according to their dynamics of poverty and relationships to broader economic and political networks allows us to capture this dynamism in ways useful for creating policies accordingly.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this is a typology intended to be built upon. As you look around at the suburbs in your region, which ones are home to poverty populations? What is the history of this poverty? What unique challenges does poverty pose for these suburbs and what tools and resources do they have to tackle these challenges? Based on these questions, what other types of suburbs do you identify?

Shifting how we think about helping poor people and poor communities to the suburbs will require creativity and innovation. The task is large but new opportunities for addressing poverty, inequality, and place may be before us. Recognizing the diversity of the issue is a great first step.


[1] This analysis has been adapted from the article: Murphy, Alexandra K. 2010. “The Symbolic Dilemmas of Suburban Poverty: Challenges and Opportunities Posed by Variations in the Contours of Suburban Poverty,” Sociological Forum, 25:3, pp. 541-569.

[2] Berube, Alan and William Frey. 2002. “A Decade of mixed blessings.” Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution. ; Jargowsky, Paul. 2003. “Stunning Progress, Hidden Problems.” Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution.

[3] Kneebone, Elizabeth and Emily Garr. 2010. “The Suburbanization of Poverty: Trends in Metropolitan American, 2000-2008.” Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution. ; Kneebone, Elizabeth, Carey Nadeau, and Alan Berube. 2011. “The Re-emergence of Concentrated Poverty: Metropolitan Trends in the 2000s.” Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution.

[4] Suro, Robert, Jill Wilson, and Audrey Singer. 2011. “Immigration and Poverty in America’s Suburbs.” Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution.

[5] Kneebone, Elizabeth and Alan Berube. 2013. Confronting Suburban Poverty in America. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

[6] Puentes, Robert and David Warren. 2006. “One Fifth of the Nation: A Comprehensive Guide to America’s First Suburbs.” Washington D.C.: Brookings Institute.

[7] Reckhow, Sarah and Margaret Weir. 2011. “Building a Stronger Regional Safety Net: Philanthropy’s Role.” Washington D.C.: Brookings Institute.

[8] Holliday, Amy and Rachel Dwyer. 2009. “Suburban Neighborhood Poverty in U.S. Metropolitan Areas in 2000.” City and Community, 8:2, pp. 155-176.

[9] Berger, Bennett. 1971. Working-Class Suburb. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.;

Lewis, Robert (Ed.). 2004. Manufacturing Suburbs. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

[10] See Allard, Scott. 2008. Out of Reach: Place, Poverty, and the New American Welfare State. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Last modified: July 11, 2023