The Institute’s head of research Paul Hunter wrote for NewStart magazine about our new report Poverty in Suburbia.
Our suburbs have often been looked down upon by architects and planners and consistently overlooked by policymakers and regeneration experts. The urbanist Jane Jacobs, for example, suggested that ‘suburbs are perfectly valid places to live, but they are inherently parasitic, economically and socially’. Our suburbs are regularly presented by the media as places of relative peace and prosperity. Yet, the latest evidence shows that many suburban neighbourhoods have high concentrations of poverty, and more suburbs could become poorer.
Regardless of the relative merits of suburbs, they are here to stay. Suburbs are attractive places to live because of the mix of convenient access to jobs and services and the housing and green space they offer. But stereotypes of upwardly mobile middle classes in sought-after private housing belies the number of people living in poverty in suburbia.
Many of our major cities are still plagued by concentrations of deprivation in central areas, including London, where poor areas are increasingly cheek by jowl with very wealthy places. However, the notion that poverty was primarily an urban issue was always more a statistical convenience, rather than a reality. In part this is because there are no regular official statistics on suburbia or poverty indicators to track deprivation in our suburbs. In the USA, where there is more data, the Brookings Institution has recently undertaken several studies on America’s poorest suburbs and suburban residents. The conclusion they reach is that many of the US city suburbs are in serious decline, and need urgent attention.
The level of analysis and debate on poverty in suburbia in the UK is nowhere near our American cousins. The furore over welfare reforms did highlight that people were fearful that poorer people would no longer be able to live in city centres, and that there may be a flight to the leafy suburbs. But the focus was on the impact on the inner city and its residents, not what it might mean for suburbia.
Our study aimed to fill the information gap by using a range of indicators to map poverty and evaluate which ‘at risk’ groups are most common in suburbs. The findings suggest that approximately 7 million people in poverty (57% of all those in poverty) live in the suburbs of England and Wales. It is important to note most people live in suburbia and concentrations poverty are higher in inner cities – nevertheless most in poverty live in suburbs. There are significant socio-economic features in the suburbs which have been largely ignored. For example, of those at risk of poverty there were higher concentrations of lone parents, part-time workers, people with a disability, and pension credit recipients in suburbs than the rest of the country.
Many of the risk factors appear to be worsening in suburbs compared with the rest of the country. Despite these concerns, a decade of measures to reduce child and pensioner poverty seems to have lessened the impact on suburbs where these groups are more common (illustrating the spatial impact of welfare policies). However, the number of suburban neighbourhoods with above-average levels of poverty has risen by 33% over the last decade. In addition, more people per head are on benefits (pension credit, job seeker’s allowance, income support and disability living allowance) in the suburbs than the rest of the country. And the claimant rates increased more per head (or decreased less) in the suburbs since the recession.
The change can also be seen in major cities where there has been a narrowing gap in concentrations of poverty between urban centres and their suburbs. For example incidences of poverty in the suburbs compared to the rest of city narrowed in London by 4 percentage points, Manchester by 3 percentage points and Newcastle by 3 percentage points.
Such observations demand a greater focus on the suburbs by government (both local and central), policymakers and anti-poverty campaigners. Moreover, things could become a lot worse. Higher housing costs, welfare reforms and a lack of affordable housing in inner cities may be forcing poorer tenants out to suburbs. This alongside predicted rises in child poverty rates could mean that poverty becomes even more prevalent in suburbia.
Suburbs (and the poverty within them) warrant greater attention, not least from ministers and Whitehall officials. With most people in poverty living in suburbs there needs to be a much better understanding of poverty in suburbia. We need to know more about the drivers of poverty by place so we can prevent the problems in the first place. Suburbs, of course, are not all the same and any strategy requires place-based approaches and local involvement. But, we need to start with a recognition that all is not well in suburbia. Many suburban economies are struggling with austerity and need more support. It is surely time we started thinking seriously about anti-poverty strategies designed for suburbia.
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