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Brookings: ‘job sprawl’ contributes to Houston’s suburban poverty

56% of poor live in suburbs

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Job sprawl, in which jobs leave the urban core for distant suburbs, has partly contributed to a rise in suburban poverty in cities such as Houston, according to the Brookings Institution. Brookings analyzed population and jobs data for the 50 largest metropolitan areas between 1990 and 2006.

The report notes that the suburban poor face unique challenges. They are concentrated in suburbs with few jobs, they must rely on inadequate suburban transit, and they are removed from many of the important social services provided in more urban areas.

However, job sprawl is not the only factor driving suburban poverty. Brookings suggests that the lack of reverse commute transit, in which riders commute out of the central city to jobs in the suburbs, and negative aspects of impoverished urban areas, such as high crime rates, may also be contributing factors.

According to Brookings, Houston has the 10th-highest level of job sprawl, with 78.1 percent of all jobs more than five miles away from the Central Business District - roughly, outside of the 610 Loop. Job sprawl increased 5.9 percent between 1990 and 2006, faster than 26 other cities, and suburbanization in Houston increased by almost 14 percent over the same time period, the 12th-highest rate in the country.

Houston’s level of suburban poverty is roughly average compared to most other cities, with 55.8 percent of the poor living in suburbs. The average in the 50 largest cities is 56.1 percent. However, this is considerably higher than cities such as Memphis, Milwaukee, and Austin, which are all in the 20 to 30 percent range, and the rate of suburban poverty in Houston is increasing rapidly. Between 1990 and 2006, suburban poverty in Houston grew 16.4 percent, eighth-fastest in the country.

Brookings notes that suburban poverty continues to grow nationwide:

In 2005, the suburban poor outnumbered their city counterparts by almost one million. And during the first year of the recession that began in 2007, suburbs added more than twice as many poor people as did their cities.

The study resulted in four key findings:

The poor are more suburbanized in metropolitan areas with greater employment decentralization. Overall, the poor are generally less likely to live in suburbs than the non-poor (55.8 percent versus 70.9 percent). Metropolitan areas with both high suburbanization of poverty and job sprawl are somewhat larger and lie mostly in the South and West, including Atlanta, Miami, San Francisco, Seattle, and Orlando.

Poor whites and Latinos are more suburbanized than poor blacks in metro areas with high job sprawl. This disparity is most marked in metropolitan areas with higher poverty rates, indicating that in such regions, poor blacks may be less able to suburbanize in response to the outward movement of jobs than other groups.

Metropolitan areas where jobs decentralized more over time experienced greater suburbanization overall, but not among the poor. This suggests that the outward movement of jobs in metropolitan areas in recent years does not by itself explain suburbanization of the poor during this time. Rather, other related factors may have propelled the decentralization of both the poor and jobs—such as lack of reverse commute public transit, or negative aspects of central cities.

Within suburbs, the poor generally live in communities that have somewhat below-average numbers of jobs. About 68 percent of all suburban residents live in areas with above average numbers of jobs compared with 62 percent of the suburban poor. Even lower shares of black and Latino suburban poor live in jobs-rich communities, particularly in higher-poverty metropolitan areas.

Full report: Job Sprawl and the Suburbanization of Poverty (pdf, 1.2 mb)

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