Suburbanization of Poverty

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It was the first meeting of this kind I have had – four pastors, a county commissioner, three community leaders, all suburbanites. They had invited me to breakfast at their favorite local watering hole, for me a full hour drive north from the city during morning commuter time. Their issue, the one they felt I might assist them with, was the appearance of “my people” in their suburban community. In the past, suburban church folk – those with a social conscience – have commuted into the city to serve the poor. They have partnered with our urban ministry to build houses, tutor kids, donate used clothes. They journeyed into the city because that’s where the poor were concentrated. All that is now changing. There are still plenty of needy neighborhoods in the city, to be sure. But poverty is gradually, relentlessly suburbanizing. The poor are gravitating to the periphery of the city where more affordable housing can be found – like 40-year-old rental complexes, yesterday’s class “A” apartments that now show signs of aging. The “disadvantaged,” once confined to urban ghettos created by the out-migrating affluent, are now “out-migrating” themselves. And suburban pastors along with their parishioners are not quite sure what to do with their new neighbors.

As I said, it was the first meeting of this kind I have had. It signaled the realization of the need for a new paradigm of service. The old commuter model of ministry, though still necessary, is in decline. New methods of serving must be devised to accommodate these “different” newcomers who are appearing in once-secure bedroom communities, in the classrooms of once-homogenous schools.

These pastors and community leaders see the tide shifting – again. It happened once before in recent memory. Then we called it white flight. That swelling tide of suburbanizers had carried these leaders to the prosperous churches and neighborhoods where they had raised their families and built their careers. The poor, sucked into inner-city ghettos by the ensuing undertow, inherited the legacy left behind by departing homeowners who took what they could salvage of their declining property values. The resulting damage on the lives of the poor has been the subject of much research. Far less examined but undoubtedly severe is the price paid by the fleeing affluent in terms of cultural stratification, material ensnarement and spiritual angst. The thought of participating in another white flight, still farther out from the city, of abandoning their communities to become the new suburban ghettos – how could these good leaders even consider such an alternative! What moral integrity would they have left? No, this time they would take corrective action. But just what form that action should take, they were unsure. And so we were having breakfast.

I had far more questions to ask than answers to offer. I brought 35+ years of urban experience to the table but absolutely no experience with suburban poverty. “Where are the poor clustering?” I inquired. Older apartment complexes were the most obvious and visible locations. These were the larger scale developments along trafficked thoroughfares where crowded bus stops, increased foot traffic and hoards of children of varying hues were quite noticeable to passers-by. This is where the first signs of the migration had showed up.

But there were other less visible locations. There were the hidden pockets of poverty that had been there as long as anyone could remember, semi-rural communities tucked away on the wrong side of the tracks where generations of poor folk had survived in mobile homes and drafty shacks. Because of their invisibility they were of no concern to anyone except the occasional police response to a drunken disorderly call or a social worker disturbed by child neglect or domestic violence reports. These people had always been there. And they would likely remain there until their isolated land appeared on the radar screen of some highway planner or mall developer. Then they would be quietly removed and disbursed to who knows where.

There were two additional troubled areas these leaders were able to identify. Dotted throughout the county were single-family subdivisions, the starter homes for two past generations of suburbanites. The oldest of these subdivisions were built right after the Second World War when the GI bill was enacted to assist the families of returning soldiers to secure affordable housing. Land outside the city was cheap then and thousands of these modest three bedroom, one bath homes were built to satisfy the new housing demand. Most were solid little houses, many brick, that were ideal for starting young families and young careers. This was the first ring of suburbanization. As children grew up and moved away and parents grew older, these homes, one by one, were sold not to new young homeowners but to investors who saw the potential for rental income. Gradually these once stable neighborhoods declined into high turnover rental areas, depleted of leadership, charm and pride. Once-safe streets where neighbors held block parties became havens for drug traffickers and gangs of untended kids. Absentee landlords, concerned only about the bottom line and not the quality of life, paid little attention to the accumulation of inoperable cars, un-mowed lawns and rotting trim.

The other identifiable locations were those 20 year old neighborhoods, typically a little farther out, with somewhat larger homes with two baths and attached garages. These too were nicely designed homogenous communities with involved neighborhood associations and yard-of-the-month awards. But as the first generation of residents moved on, they sold their houses to upwardly mobile African Americans and assorted immigrants of various cultures, all hard working families in pursuit of the American dream, who had little in common and even less interest in close neighboring relationships. With declining communication and little to reinforce community pride, these subdivisions started to deteriorate. Working parents were often too busy to attend to weedy lawns or peeling paint. Many of these first-time homeowners had neither the awareness nor history of property maintenance required to assure continued appreciation. To add insult to injury, the sub-prime lending fiasco was taking its toll, boarding up houses as they fell into foreclosure. Three of the community leaders that sat around this morning’s breakfast table currently lived in such a community. How to halt the decline and restore neighborhood health was a prime concern to them

How to begin? Where to begin? These four very different scenarios of change were playing out simultaneously in numerous places all over this large county, the commissioner told us. And each would obviously require a different intervention strategy. Each would require enormous amounts of focused effort. The four churches represented at our breakfast table were located in different parts of the county and drew their memberships from a wide radius. How could they begin to tackle all these challenges in anything but a piecemeal approach?

Gather data. That’s a starting place, I offered. These anecdotal observations need to be verified, quantified, plotted on a map. We need a demographic map that shows where various income levels are clustered and what ethnic groups are represented. Crime reports and school performance (and percentage of free and reduced lunches) will also help fill in the picture. Real estate information will be useful as well – foreclosure rates, ratio of rental to home ownership, property value trends. Once we have an accurate picture of the specific locations and actual magnitude of the challenges before us, we can then begin to prioritize and focus our attention on the most strategic spots. Then we can identify what resources can be mobilized to address the specific issues of that first target location.

To be continued...

Bob Lupton

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