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The Las Vegas suburbs aren’t the middle-class havens many imagine them to be. 

In our post-recession world, thousands of suburban residents remain underwater on their homes. 

Wages are rising, but not as fast as they did more than a decade ago. And some residents work two jobs just to make ends meet. 

All these factors add up to a rising suburban poverty rate.  

Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, told KNPR’s State of Nevada that poverty has always been a part of the landscape in the suburbs but as the numbers grew people started to notice.

“In the 2000s in particular, we saw a really rapid rise in suburban poverty that I think caught a lot more attention and rose to the national consciousness more than it had in the past,” she said. “In fact, as a nation we passed a tipping point in the 2000s, where there were actually more poor people living in suburbs than in the big cities of our major metro areas.”

She said poverty in the suburbs came about for a lot of reasons. Kneebone said people already in poverty moved out to find more affordable housing, better schools and safer communities. But she said the largest portion of the trend is those already living in the suburbs slipping into poverty in large part because of the Great Recession.

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“The 2000s had two economic downturns and the economic recoveries that followed each were not shared,” she said “They didn’t reach down the economic ladder. So we’ve seen a lot of people losing ground in the suburbs.”

According to Kneebone, the growth of suburban poverty in Las Vegas was faster than what was going on nationwide. Between 2000 and 2014, the nationwide poverty rate in suburbs grew by 65 percent in Southern Nevada it grew 123 percent.

To add to that, even though we’re years into the recovery the number hasn’t come down. Kneebone said the problem was there before the housing crisis, the economic downturn just pushed it into “fast forward.”  

“Poverty was growing here even before the downturn,” she said. “It wasn’t just about the recession. So we wouldn’t necessarily expect the recession to solve all of these issues either because in part it’s not just the cyclical changes. It’s structural changes in the economy as well.”

She said a lot more jobs offer low wages, which means even people working full time would struggle to keep their families above the poverty line, which for the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia is $11,770 per year for a single-person household and $24,250 for a four-person household.

One of the big problems with poverty in areas outside a city’s urban core is that they may not have the resources to help people in need.

“Even as we’ve seen poverty suburbanize and grow beyond the urban core over the years, it hasn’t done so evenly,” Kneebone said, “We’ve seen concentrated poverty grow as well and increasingly these pockets of concentrated poverty are emerging outside of central cities in suburban communities that may not be well equipped to address those needs and challenges.”

Kneebone said the solution to suburban poverty and really poverty in general, cannot be looked at as a problem for individual cities or townships, but must be tackled with a regional approach.

“These are really shared challenges, not isolated to the urban core or certain parts of the suburbs but a truly regional challenge,” she said.

Guests

Elizabeth Kneebone, fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution

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