Recently, I co-authored a report with Benjamin Roth for the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program that examined the strains confronting suburban safety nets amidst evidence of rapidly rising rates of poverty in suburban communities.
One of the most surprising findings from this work is that suburban safety nets lag behind in offering nonprofit social service programs of assistance that can help low-income populations find work and provide for their families. Yet, such programs – whether providing employment assistance, emergency food, or help finding housing – are essential sources of support in today’s safety net receiving roughly $100 billion annually. The figure below shows most suburban communities examined in our study with no or only very modest-sized social service nonprofit organizations.
There are several reasons why suburban communities lag behind in strength of safety nets. First, poverty is a relatively recent phenomenon in suburban America and has become more prominent in the wake of the recession in 2001. Unlike their urban counterparts, public agencies and nonprofit organizations in suburban areas lack the capacity and resources to address poverty issues. Second, many of the perceived virtues of suburban living make it extremely difficult to deliver safety net assistance. Low-density residential communities, small government, and a reliance on automobile transportation make it difficult for service providers to secure adequate program funding, achieve economies of scale, and find accessible places to locate programs.
What can be done? We are a compassionate country in many respects and we give generously to charity. In the short-term, our compassion should lead us to stronger channel a larger share of our philanthropic giving to charities that work with low-income populations in our local communities. Currently, about $.10 of every dollar given to charity goes to a social service nonprofit and most of that dime goes to organizations in cities. It is also important that we look past misleading stereotypes of who is poor, recognizing that many people seeking help today never thought they would face lengthy periods of time without work and are trying to get back to work as soon as they can.
In the long-term, there should be greater investment in suburban safety net programs. Part of the investment will require finding regional models for service delivery that increase access and reduce inefficiencies associated with administering programs across many different suburban counties and municipalities. Greater investment also requires we translate support for nonprofit organizations into public support for programs that will help families living below the poverty line. Particularly important are programs that provide emergency food and shelter to stabilize families, deliver services that help families cope with the stress of prolonged unemployment, and education and training for the skilled jobs of tomorrow. Without investment in a safety net that supports jobseekers until they are able to find stable work and achieve greater self-sufficiency, none of our communities will be able to fully enter into economic recovery in the coming years.