Access to Opportunity:  Place, Poverty, and Social Service Provision in the U.S.  
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Suburbs were home to a large and fast-growing poor population in the 2000s, yet few of the suburban communities studied have a social services infrastructure in place to address the challenges of increasing poverty. The Great Recession has exacerbated this gap between demand and capacity in the suburbs, as nonprofit social service providers have been increasingly asked to help rising numbers of low-income families but with tighter budgets and fewer resources. As is true for cities and rural places, the nonprofit social service sector in suburbs can help these communities alleviate the worst economic and social impacts of the current downturn and future increases in poverty. 

This report examines data from the Census Bureau, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and a new survey of social services providers in suburban communities surrounding three major metropolitan areas (Chicago, IL; Los Angeles, CA; and Washington, D.C.) to assess the challenges that rising suburban poverty poses for local safety nets and community-based organizations.

Consistent with what metropolitan areas nationwide have experienced as they cope with the long-term impact of the Great Recession, it finds that:

  • Suburban jurisdictions outside of Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. vary significantly in their levels of poverty, recent poverty trends, and racial/ethnic profiles, both among and within these metro areas.  Several suburban counties outside of Chicago experienced more than 40 percent increases in the number of poor residents from 2000 to 2008, as did portions of counties in suburban Maryland and northern Virginia. Yet poverty rates declined during the middle part of the decade for suburban counties in metropolitan Los Angeles. While several suburban Los Angeles municipalities are majority Hispanic and a handful of Chicago suburbs have sizeable Hispanic populations, many Washington, D.C. suburbs have substantial black and Asian populations as well.
  • Suburban safety nets rely on relatively few social services organizations, and tend to stretch operations across much larger service delivery areas than their urban counterparts. Thirty-four percent of nonprofits surveyed reported operating in more than one suburban county, and 60 percent offered services in more than one suburban municipality. The size and capacity of the nonprofit social service sector varies widely across suburbs, with 357 poor residents per nonprofit provider in Montgomery County, MD, to 1,627 in Riverside County, CA. Where one lives in the suburbs, therefore, may greatly affect one’s access to certain types of help.
  • In the wake of the Great Recession, demand is up significantly for the typical suburban provider, and almost three-quarters (73 percent) of suburban nonprofits are seeing more clients with no previous connection to safety net programs.  Needs have changed as well, with nearly 80 percent of suburban nonprofits surveyed seeing families with food needs more often than one year prior, and nearly 60 percent reporting more frequent requests for help with mortgage or rent payments.  Most nonprofits reported referring clients to other providers as a way to cope with rising demand for assistance.
  • In the wake of the Great Recession, demand is up significantly for the typical suburban provider, and almost three-quarters (73 percent) of suburban nonprofits are seeing more clients with no previous connection to safety net programs.  Needs have changed as well, with nearly 80 percent of suburban nonprofits surveyed seeing families with food needs more often than one year prior, and nearly 60 percent reporting more frequent requests for help with mortgage or rent payments.  Most nonprofits reported referring clients to other providers as a way to cope with rising demand for assistance.

The relatively small numbers of nonprofit providers that operate in suburban communities have faced the daunting challenge of serving new safety net clientele amidst unpredictable funding streams and persistently high rates of unemployment. Even as economic recovery emerges, many suburban providers interviewed here remain concerned that levels of need will persist and possibly continue to grow. Sturdy suburban safety nets and nonprofit social service sectors will be critical, however, to help communities alleviate the worst social and economic effects of this downturn and to meet the ongoing needs of a poor population that is increasingly suburban.

Click here for the research report from the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. which explores how suburban nonprofit organizations are coping with rising need and falling revenues.

Scott W. Allard
Professor
Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs  
University of Washington
sallard@uw.edu