The “typical” suburban family with two parents and 2.5 children is long gone—if it ever existed. Now, a new book from the Brookings Institution debunks another myth about the suburbs—that of suburban prosperity: there are now more people living in poverty in the suburbs than in downtown areas.

“The geography of poverty and opportunity has changed,” said Elizabeth Kneebone, author with Alan Berube of Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, speaking at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., in August.

The accelerated growth of the suburban poor population began in the 1980s, said Kneebone. The Great Recession exacerbated the trend: From 2000 to 2011, the poor population in the suburbs grew by 64 percent—more than twice the 29 percent growth in cities. In 2011, there were 16.4 million poor people in the suburbs and 13.4 million in cities.

(Census Data)

(Census Data)

How did this change come about? In many areas, affordable new construction pushed farther out into the suburbs and exurbs. More immigrants with low-wage jobs also moved to the suburbs. Still, said Kneebone, although immigrants accounted for 30 percent of the increase in the suburban population from 2000 to 2009, they now make up just 17 percent of the suburban poor. Many of the high-wage jobs lost during the recession were in manufacturing and construction, which tend to cluster in the suburbs. And many of the jobs created in the economic recovery were lower-wage jobs.

The suburban poor face challenges that their urban counterparts don’t. An important one is transit access. One-quarter of the former have a 90-minute commute one way by public transit. That is an area where regional planners can play an important role, Kneebone said in an interview with Urban Land. “They can help provide access to opportunity: jobs and education.”

Success with transit—a regional issue requiring coordination between city and suburbs—has varied by city. For instance, Washington, D.C.’s extensive Metrorail system, which links two states and the District of Columbia, serves its population much better than Atlanta’s MARTA (Metropolitan Area Regional Transit Authority) does a similar size population, Kneebone and Berube point out in their book.

Source: Brookings Institution analysis of decennial census and ACS data. Metropolitan area names have been adjusted to reflect Brookings Institution–defined primary cities

Source: Brookings Institution analysis of decennial census and ACS data. Metropolitan area names have been adjusted to reflect Brookings Institution–defined primary cities.

Another challenge for the suburban poor is what Kneebone calls the “strained and patchy safety net.” Social services were generally set up for concentrated populations and don’t deal well with the dispersal of poverty across the suburbs.

How should these problems be addressed? “Current policies are not aligned to the new geography,” Kneebone said. At the federal level, poverty programs are sometimes a bureaucratic mess: Ten federal agencies handle 81 programs and spend $82 billion.

Even when communities do receive funds, the benefits may be mired in bureaucracy. In Chicago, Kneebone said, 19 communities in and around the city jointly applied for a Neighborhood Stabilization Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The joint application was important to achieve economies of scale. The communities received $9 million, but it was in the form of 11 separate awards for different communities.

The important question, said Kneebone: “How could future funding reward collaboration?”

The author outlined a way the federal government can help, creating what she and Berube call a “metropolitan opportunity challenge.” Five percent of the budget for poverty programs (about $4 billion) would be used to award competitive grants to states for collaborative regional programs that use economies of scale to help low-income residents.

Kneebone admits the chances of the current Congress acting on that idea are low. But some federal actions wouldn’t require congressional approval, such as clarifying that it’s acceptable to use funding for different jurisdictions to collaborate.

Some localities have started addressing these problems with the resources they have. Houston’s Neighborhood Centers, with an annual budget of $275 million, uses funding from federal, state, and private sources to provide social services to both urban and suburban communities. But more coordination among the funders would help. The group, which coordinates resources for 35 programs, has to provide more than 200 reports a year.