Dissertation

The geography of poverty in the U.S. has experienced a dramatic shift from central cities to the suburbs. As of 2000, for the first time in American history, the greatest share of people living in poverty resided in the suburbs. This raises a number of important, unexamined questions: What is daily life like for the suburban poor? What sorts of challenges does rising poverty entail for the suburbs and how are these places adapting? Given urban and suburban differences in the built environment and structure of organizational and political life, how do sociological theories of urban poverty translate to the suburbs? This ethnographic community study examines these questions and in doing so offers the first systematic, in-depth account of the new suburban poverty. I focus on African American poverty in order to make theoretical comparisons with the rich sociological scholarship on urban poverty.

To conduct the research, I lived in one Pittsburgh suburb experiencing rising rates of African American poverty for over three and a half years. The suburb was largely built up after World War II as a bedroom community for middle class, car owning families. I carried out participant observation in churches, laundromats, bus stops, and parking lots. I followed six poor families, intensively observing their everyday lives. This is complemented by a survey of households on three different blocks of concentrated poverty. To study the organizational and political life of the suburb I interned in the municipal planning department, served as secretary of the NAACP, assisted the community development corporation, rode regularly with code enforcement and police, volunteered in food pantries, and observed meetings of city council, school board, and civic organizations inside and outside the suburb. The ethnography is supplemented with an analysis of spatial data and primary documents.

I find that for poor African Americans, a move to the suburbs does not offer the opportunities for upward mobility, dignity, and prestige that it did for the white middle classes who suburbanized before them. Instead, structures of inequality become reproduced in the suburbs in ways that create new challenges and disadvantages for poor people, contributing to their enduring dispossession. I show how this unfolds in different spaces across the community and highlight the role that the suburban built environment, intra- and inter-suburban networks, local organizations, race, and politics play in this process. The study illuminates how poor residents attempt to manage the unique obstacles of suburban living and how this shapes their experiences with stigma and extreme social isolation from family, friends, neighbors, social services, and local organizations. An important piece of this story is that poor people are living in suburbs that are themselves in decline. I trace the historical developments that produced this suburban scarcity and detail the material and symbolic challenges it poses to institutions and networks originally designed to promote suburban middle class lifestyles.

The study makes four significant contributions. First, it offers the most extensive qualitative treatment of the lives of the new suburban poor and the suburban context in which they live. To date, research on suburban poverty has largely been based on economic and demographic data. Second, scholars have argued that suburban poverty exists in a “policy blindspot.” By providing much needed ethnographic analysis of the social, political, and organizational dynamics of suburban poverty, it uncovers how current policies fail to address poor suburban residents and communities and highlights places where more appropriate policies might intervene. Third, it broadens sociological understanding of an understudied aspect of the contemporary black experience: suburban living. Finally, it challenges us to rethink, theoretically, how we conceive the role of place in studies of poverty and inequality. It shows that unlike what current urban scholarship would predict, distrust, low social capital, isolation, and low collective efficacy can be found in suburban neighborhoods that lack violence, disorder, concentrated poverty, residential instability, and heavy policing – neighborhood conditions thought to explain such outcomes. By exposing how experiences of poverty that have been conceptualized as “urban” unfold in new, very different suburban spaces, the dissertation raises important question about what, if anything, is unique or “urban” about urban poverty.*

 

*This research has been generously supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the National Science Foundation, the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, the Center for AfricanAmerican Urban Studies and the Economy at Carnegie Mellon University, the Princeton University Department of Sociology, and the Mellon/American Council of Learned Societies.