It is fitting then that, in an era when the American Dream seems more cliche political-convention-nostalgia than reality, the symbol of that Dream is not only itself rusting, but also fueling the economic downturn.
We all know the story by now: The good times of the late '90s spurred the housing boom; lenders showed a whole new consumer base that they, too, could have the crisp lawn, white fence, two-car garage, little league practice, backyard tree-house, etc. But as banks handed out loans like Cosco samples, people bought houses that should have been out of their price range. Then the market collapsed, adjustable rate mortgages skyrocketed, people lost their jobs, and many homeowners were stuck with monthly payments that, if they were lucky, gobbled up only half of paychecks.
Suddenly, unemployment checks and free school lunches were suburban staples.
A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco has quantified that trend: Over the last decade, the number of Bay Area residents living in poverty rose twice as fast in suburbia than in urban areas, mirroring a nationwide shift.
From 2000 to 2009, poverty in the suburban census tracts of the region's nine counties expanded by 16.1 percent, compared to 7.2 percent in inner-cities (population growth was virtually identical in both areas), according to the study, which used data from the 2005 Census and the the 2005-2009 American Community Survey.
In 2005, for the first time in U.S. history, the number of people living in poverty in the suburbs surpassed the number living in urban poverty. Over the past decade, rapid growth of suburban poverty is likely the result of two converging factors: rising property values in metropolitan areas like San Francisco pushed out the working class folks most vulnerable to the recession; and the housing boom offered seemingly affordable houses to those often first-time homeowners leaving the cities.
Many of those new suburban homeowners -- in places like Antioch, Millbrae, Pittsburg, and Vallejo -- were minorities. Among ethnic groups, the S.F. Fed study found, Hispanics had the largest poverty growth -- 22.8 percent rise in urban population living in poverty and a 28.2 percent rise in the suburbs. To be sure, this is also partially explained by the fact that the Hispanic population, across all socioeconomic rungs, has soared since 2000.
Data on the black population is more representative of the Bay Area's demographic shifts. Between 2000 and 2009, the number of black people living in urban poverty decreased by 11.3 percent -- the only racial group to see a decrease in either type of poverty. Of course, this time period also saw a significant exodus of that racial group from San Francisco. As our May feature story, The Dispossessed, noted:
Over the last 40 years, the black population in San Francisco dropped from over 13 percent to 6 percent, the biggest percentage decline in any major American city. Around a quarter of the city's remaining black population lives in Bayview, which has the highest foreclosure rate in San Francisco....
In 1980, Bayview was 65 percent black, and nearly two-thirds of that demographic owned a home. By 2010, the neighborhood was 34 percent black, and less than a third of them owned a home.
During the last decade, suburban poverty among the Bay Area's black population rose by 19.9 percent.
Asians had the second biggest disparity between urban and suburban poverty rates. The number of Asians living in poverty grew by 12.8 percent in the suburbs versus 3.8 percent in the inner-city. The white population's poverty numbers were the most balanced among racial groups: 13.2 percent increase in the suburbs, 9.9 percent in urban areas.
Suburban poverty causes different problems than the urban version. Simply put, suburbia wasn't built for poor people-- it lacks the infrastructure. The suburbs are about detaching into the privacy and space of your own living room, not meshing with the masses in public melting pots. Public transportation is limited. Public squares are often sparse and far between. Social service agencies aren't as connected to the community.
"Poverty suburbanization is occurring at a time when service providers are closing rather than expanding, making it more difficult for suburban areas to respond to a growing poor population," the S.F. Fed stated.