As of the year 2000 the suburbs became home to the greatest share of the American poor. This marks a historical shift in the geography of U.S. poverty. To date, little is known about who the suburban poor are, what their lives are like, or the context in which they live. This ethnographic community study examines the everyday lives of the black suburban poor and the organizational and political life of the community that structures the suburban poor experience. It also considers how and in what ways the suburbs may be a different place for the black poor to live than many urban poor neighborhoods.
To conduct this research I moved into a poor, black neighborhood in the suburb under study. For three and a half years I lived in this suburb, conducting participant observation in businesses, churches, Laundromats, NAACP meetings, bus stops, restaurants, and people’s homes in order to observe interaction. I followed six poor families in the suburb, observing their everyday lives and interactions with family, friends, neighbors, landlords, case workers, employers, and schools. I conducted a survey of ninety two households living on three different blocks of concentrated poverty to complement the ethnography. To study the organizational and political life of the suburb I interned in the local municipality, volunteered at a community center, volunteered with churches and an educational parent’s group, and assisted the local community development corporation. I also rode regularly with the police and code enforcement. Further, I attended public city council meetings, school board meetings, crime watch meetings, and neighborhood association meetings. The ethnography is supplemented by spatial analysis of social and physical features of the community. This analysis includes data from the Port Authority, Department of Human Services, U.S. Census, Pittsburgh Neighborhood and Community Information Systems, the municipality, and spatial data I collected by hand. Primary documents, including codes, budgets, and newspaper, are also analyzed.
It has been argued that suburban poverty exists in a “policy blindspot;” it is rarely recognized by public officials and when it is, there are few tools to combat it. This research seeks to advance our understanding of what life is like for the poor living in these places, what unique challenges suburban poor neighborhoods face, what challenges organizations and municipalities face when addressing poverty, and what resources they have at their fingertips to do so. By bringing those questions sociologists have asked of urban poverty to the suburbs, this research contributes to a scholarship on race, space, place, and inequality. Further, understanding these dimensions of suburban poverty will be useful in identifying ways in which current policies are not useful for the suburban poor and helps us to craft the tools that are appropriate to the contours of these lived realities.*
*This research is 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.