Bay Area Poverty Is Growing Faster in Suburbia Than in Urban Areas

Categories: Community
If only more people could "borrow money if you have to from your parents."
Suburban poverty is a relatively new phenomenon. For the past 60 or so years, the suburbs have traditionally represented the American Dream. Work hard, play by the rules, and it'll all be yours-- the crisp lawn, white fence, two-car garage, little league practice, backyard tree-house, etc -- and your kids will have it even better.

It is fitting then that, in an era when the American Dream seems more cliche political-convention-nostalgia than reality, the symbol of that Dream is not only itself rusting, but also fueling the economic downturn.

We all know the story by now: The good times of the late '90s spurred the housing boom; lenders showed a whole new consumer base that they, too, could have the crisp lawn, white fence, two-car garage, little league practice, backyard tree-house, etc. But as banks handed out loans like Cosco samples, people bought houses that should have been out of their price range. Then the market collapsed, adjustable rate mortgages skyrocketed, people lost their jobs, and many homeowners were stuck with monthly payments that, if they were lucky, gobbled up only half of paychecks.

Suddenly, unemployment checks and free school lunches were suburban staples.

A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco has quantified that trend: Over the last decade, the number of Bay Area residents living in poverty rose twice as fast in suburbia than in urban areas, mirroring a nationwide shift.

From 2000 to 2009, poverty in the suburban census tracts of the region's nine counties expanded by 16.1 percent, compared to 7.2 percent in inner-cities (population growth was virtually identical in both areas), according to the study, which used data from the 2005 Census and the the 2005-2009 American Community Survey.

In 2005, for the first time in U.S. history, the number of people living in poverty in the suburbs surpassed the number living in urban poverty. Over the past decade, rapid growth of suburban poverty is likely the result of two converging factors: rising property values in metropolitan areas like San Francisco pushed out the working class folks most vulnerable to the recession; and the housing boom offered seemingly affordable houses to those often first-time homeowners leaving the cities.

Many of those new suburban homeowners -- in places like Antioch, Millbrae, Pittsburg, and Vallejo -- were minorities. Among ethnic groups, the S.F. Fed study found, Hispanics had the largest poverty growth -- 22.8 percent rise in urban population living in poverty and a 28.2 percent rise in the suburbs. To be sure, this is also partially explained by the fact that the Hispanic population, across all socioeconomic rungs, has soared since 2000.

Data on the black population is more representative of the Bay Area's demographic shifts. Between 2000 and 2009, the number of black people living in urban poverty decreased by 11.3 percent -- the only racial group to see a decrease in either type of poverty. Of course, this time period also saw a significant exodus of that racial group from San Francisco. As our May feature story, The Dispossessed, noted:

Over the last 40 years, the black population in San Francisco dropped from over 13 percent to 6 percent, the biggest percentage decline in any major American city. Around a quarter of the city's remaining black population lives in Bayview, which has the highest foreclosure rate in San Francisco....

In 1980, Bayview was 65 percent black, and nearly two-thirds of that demographic owned a home. By 2010, the neighborhood was 34 percent black, and less than a third of them owned a home.

During the last decade, suburban poverty among the Bay Area's black population rose by 19.9 percent.

Asians had the second biggest disparity between urban and suburban poverty rates. The number of Asians living in poverty grew by 12.8 percent in the suburbs versus 3.8 percent in the inner-city. The white population's poverty numbers were the most balanced among racial groups: 13.2 percent increase in the suburbs, 9.9 percent in urban areas.

Suburban poverty causes different problems than the urban version. Simply put, suburbia wasn't built for poor people-- it lacks the infrastructure. The suburbs are about detaching into the privacy and space of your own living room, not meshing with the masses in public melting pots. Public transportation is limited. Public squares are often sparse and far between. Social service agencies aren't as connected to the community.

"Poverty suburbanization is occurring at a time when service providers are closing rather than expanding, making it more difficult for suburban areas to respond to a growing poor population," the S.F. Fed stated.

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mrericsir topcommenter

As the blue collar jobs disappeared, of course poverty increased.  What did anyone think would happen, those workers would just disappear forever?

Rob Hammes
Rob Hammes

So, you use a Romney meme for an article on Bay Area poverty? Way to keep your eye on the ball! He has had such an incredible impact on economic conditions and public policy in our area. How about this, why not use a condescending meme of any one of the liberal politicians that have dominated local politics for decades? In spite of all their good intentions, they have nonetheless failed to eradicate poverty with our money. I'm sure it's probably Romney's fault.


Very well said.  After the  'thousand points of light' administration was voted out , in the mid 90's America experienced a robust economy,  an elimination of the federal deficit, and an euphoric sense of financial confidence that could be felt but not explained.   The late 90's was the beginning of run amok consumerism, an escalation of greed, and 2 wars  and  in 2008  the disastrous "downward spiral".   We can point fingers in every direction because each one of us had a part in this mess.


Excessive relative poverty is the consequence, primarily, of public policy (trade agreeements, open borders, welfare policy, school funding, etc.), and secondarily, of societal trends (assortative mating, automation, business efficiency, CEO self interest, identity politics, etc.). Public policy is the consequence of elected government and the elite who control it. Public policy affects societal trends - open borders leading to identity politics, for example. Although not much can be done directly about societal trends, much could be done - theoretically - about public policy, if people became informed and energized. But they won't until things become much, much worse, and by then many of the most astute will have moved on to saner places.


where k, h and j are constants

CLV = cost of living

HGPV = home grown poverty (number of individuals)

IMPV = imported poverty (number of individuals)

TXP = net taxpayers (number of individuals)

IDP = affect of Identity Politics on willingness to be taxed

LND = Land available for housing



Overall a good article but a couple of erroneous facts.

First, there was no "good times of the 90's". The housing market began to crumble in February of 1990, bottomed out in 1994 and didn't see glimpses of life until 1998 when the tech sector began to breathe life into Bay Area real estate. Overall, the decade of the 90's was not very good, at least until the very end.

Second, you reference banks handing out loans like Costco samples and then the market collapsing and adjustable rate mortgage skyrocketing and leaving people with mortgages they couldn't afford. In point of fact, the rates dropped and have ever since the 1980's. Adjustable rate mortgages were not the cause of people not being able to afford their mortgages, but rather the collapse of the banks, inability to get a loan, collapse of the job market and general panic about the state of the economy. Businesses across the country started shrinking and laying people off during a time when the valuation of housing dropped below the point where people could refinance. No reduced interest rate/mortgage payment coupled with lost jobs = disaster. I saw a lot of people leaving California to find cheaper housing and a cheaper lifestyle. 

Other than that, I did like your article and thought the main point about suburban poverty was spot on. Interesting to see the condition of neighborhoods get really crummy due to the ratio of ownership versus rentals, coupled with the amount of distressed properties.


Terry Tucker

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