“Suburban” Poverty in Metro Boston

“Suburban” Poverty in Metro Boston: A Regional Assessment
Tim Reardon, Manager of Planning Research
MAPC Data Services
October 7, 2013
In the recent book Confronting Suburban Poverty, authors Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube examine
the growing incidence of poverty outside the central cities of most American metro areas and recommend
a variety of strategies to reform and remake poverty policies they deem ill-suited to a suburban context.
Case studies from across the country demonstrate that lack of institutional capacity, fragmented decision
making, and inflexible funding are significant barriers to more efficient and effective poverty alleviation
programs and services; and that these barriers may be especially problematic in smaller jurisdictions with
growing low-income populations.
Given the significance of the new book and the attention it is receiving both here in Massachusetts and
around the country, MAPC decided to examine the landscape of poverty in Metro Boston and specifically
whether poverty is becoming relatively more prevalent in suburban communities. Using the community
typology that we developed as part of the MetroFuture planning process, we conclude that the vast
majority of poverty in Metro Boston still occurs in communities that would be considered urban by most
observers; and that the landscape of poverty has shifted only slightly over the past ten years, without
showing any definitive movement toward suburban settings. Poverty has become less concentrated in the
region’s innermost cities (such as Boston and Somerville), but corresponding increases have occurred in
urban communities around the periphery of the core (Quincy and Malden, for example) and more distant
urban centers (e.g., Salem and Lawrence). While a small number of suburban towns have seen a rapid
increase in poverty, most suburbs have seen little change or even a decline in the share of the region’s
poverty since the year 2000.
Our findings have implications for the national discussion about suburban poverty and also suggest new
research is needed to understand more fully the dynamics of changing regional poverty. Any analysis that
defines all municipalities outside of a central city as “suburbs” is likely to overstate the magnitude of
poverty that occurs in a truly suburban context, and could be interpreted by some readers to mean that
resources are being misallocated to urban communities and/or that suburbs, as a class, are now providing
housing for their “fair share” of low-income households. Overcoming this interpretive challenge requires a
more nuanced classification system that can distinguish the wide range of communities outside of a region’s
principal city, ranging from high-density urban municipalities with a long history of poverty and
interventions, to small suburban towns experiencing a rapid influx of low-income newcomers. More
research is needed to understand the characteristics of suburban communities that have experienced an
increased concentration of poverty and how they differ from suburbs where the income distribution has
remained largely the same. While it is clear that suburban poverty is a growing issue in America, more
work is needed to understand just how big an issue it is, where it is likely to occur in the future, and whether
the institutional and financial barriers to an effective response are fundamentally different than those that
have stymied efforts to alleviate urban poverty over the past 40 years. Our initial efforts to consider
these issues in Metro Boston are summarized below.
1. The region has many different types of suburban and urban communities outside Boston.
Ten years ago at the outset of the regional planning process that resulted in the adoption of MetroFuture
(our regional plan for sustainable and equitable growth and preservation), MAPC realized that the
conventional urban vs. suburban dichotomy embedded in most conversations about Metro Boston had little
utility for regional analysis and was a major barrier to regional thinking, inter-municipal collaboration, and
innovative approaches.
In order to overcome this barrier, MAPC used a data-driven
process to define five major types of municipalities in
Massachusetts, and nine subtypes that range from the highest
density cities in the core of the region to various smaller urban
centers, suburbs at various stages of development, and rural
towns1. In our classification system, urban communities are
those with high population densities, a large proportion of
multifamily housing, moderate and high-density
neighborhoods surrounding a large and historically significant
downtown, and other features generally considered to
represent urbanity. (Poverty was not used as a defining
variable.) Even these are a diverse set of communities that
vary in size, income, density, economic activity, and job
proximity. The subtypes reflect this nuance and range from
high-density Metropolitan Core communities immediately
adjacent to Boston (Somerville, Revere, Chelsea, Everett) to
Streetcar Suburbs that are in fact relatively urbanized
(Watertown, Arlington, Brookline), and Regional Urban
Centers (Quincy, Lynn, Lowell, Lawrence) that act as historic
urban hubs for their surrounding sub-regions. Of the four
urban subtypes, the Metro Core and Major Regional Urban
Centers can be considered “definitively urban,” whereas the
Streetcar Suburbs and Sub-Regional Urban Centers may be considered “predominately urban.” Many,
though not all, of these municipalities also qualify under federal anti-poverty programs such as Community
Development Block Grants and are generally home to a robust nonprofit sector of Community
Development Corporations (CDCs) and other anti-poverty organizations.
Correspondingly, there are four definitively suburban Community Subtypes, which vary in their density,
age of development, remaining developable land, and recent growth rates. They are primarily
distinguished from urban communities by their low to moderate density and overwhelmingly single-family
housing stock. Suburban communities currently house approximately 45% of the region’s population. Rural
Towns are a fifth Community Type characterized by very low density, small populations, and very slow
housing production; though present elsewhere in Massachusetts, none are found in the Metro Boston region.
Our classification system is very different than the one used in Confronting Suburban Poverty. In order to
maintain simplicity and consistency across their national survey, Kneebone and Berube consider suburbs to
be every place except the first named city in the title of the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), and any
other named city that has a population of 100,000 or more. This definition is intended to distinguish the
MAPC Suburban Poverty White Paper – October 7, 2013
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“urban hubs” that form “the heart of the regional labor market” from the rest of the region2. In the BostonCambridge-Quincy MSA, only the cities of Boston and Cambridge satisfy the criteria. When compared to
the definition used by the authors, MAPC’s classification system based on density, housing type, and urban
form increases substantially the number of “urban” municipalities (and reduces the extent of “suburbs”)
while illuminating distinctions within each category.
While the same typology and identical methods may not be appropriate or feasible in other regions, our
experience here, along with other documented U.S. community typology research3 provides a starting
point for a more nuanced classification system that provides better insight into patterns of poverty outside
central cities.
2. Most of Metro Boston’s poverty remains in urban communities.
MAPC’s analyzed the extent of poverty across 164 municipalities in Eastern Massachusetts4 using American
Community Survey (ACS) data from 2007-2011 so that statistics on the number of people living in
households below federal poverty limits could be calculated for all of the constituent Minor Civil Divisions.
Within this region, Boston and Cambridge—the two municipalities that qualify as “urban” using the book’s
definition—contain 32% of all residents in poverty. But as noted above, there are many urban communities
outside of Boston, including nine other “definitively urban” municipalities in the Metro Core and Major
Regional Urban Centers. These cities contain an additional 22% of the region’s residents in poverty.
Altogether, the Metro Core and Major Regional Urban Centers contain 55% of the region’s residents in
poverty, more than double their share of the population. (See the chart below and the table at the end of
this report for details.) The “predominately urban” Streetcar Suburbs and Sub-Regional Urban Centers
contain 27% of the population and 26% of the population in poverty, bringing the total share of poverty
in urban communities to over 80%. Only one in five residents in poverty lives in a municipality that
could be considered definitively suburban.
Metro Boston Poverty by Urban - Suburban Classification, 2010
Share of Region's Population
Share of Region's Poverty
Cities of Boston &
Other Definitively Urban
Predominately Urban
Suburban Towns
For example, Hanlon, B. 2009, “A Typology of Inner-Ring Suburbs: Class, Race, and Ethnicity in U.S. Suburbia.” City
& Community. 8(3): 221-246; and Mikelbank, B. 2004, “A Typology of U.S. Suburban Places.” Housing Policy Debate.
4 This region is often specified as the MetroFuture Modeling Region and comprises the municipalities included in the
regional travel demand model and MAPC population projection area. It excludes the New Hampshire portion of the
MSA but includes portions of Worcester and Bristol Counties.
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In contrast, Confronting Suburban Poverty indicates that “suburban” municipalities contain 69% of the
MSA’s population in poverty as of 2011. By including a large number of urban municipalities outside of
the region’s central cities, the analysis substantially overstates Metro Boston’s suburban poverty. In fact, the
vast majority of residents in poverty live in an urban context.
3. The suburbanization of poverty in Metro Boston is slight and concentrated.
Next, we examined whether poverty is becoming relatively more prevalent in suburban areas and how
poverty is specifically distributed across communities. Regionwide, the number of people in poverty
increased by 18% from 2000 to 2007 – 2011. Growing poverty in suburban communities may be a
symptom of increasing poverty overall, not a shift in the distribution of that poverty. An appropriate
measure for assessing the dispersion of poverty is the share of the region’s residents in poverty. Kneebone
and Berube concluded that the “suburban” share of the Boston MSA’s residents in poverty rose from 64.4%
in 1970 to 68.6% in 2011. (Comparable statistics are not provided for 2000.)
Using the MAPC typology, the Metro Core Communities and Major Regional Urban Centers held 56.7% of
the region’s residents in poverty in 2000; by 2007 – 2011 this had declined to 54.6% (a decrease of
2.1%). In other words, the region’s poverty is becoming less concentrated in the region’s definitively
urban communities. However, most of this shift was not to suburban towns but to the predominately urban
Streetcar Suburbs and Sub-Regional Urban Centers, whose collective share of residents in poverty
increased from 24.3% to 25.6%. These two community types account for fully one-third of the regional
increase in poverty, despite the fact that they account for only 27% of its population and less than one
quarter of the year 2000 population in poverty.
Meanwhile, the share of the region’s poverty in definitively suburban communities increased by less
than one percentage point, from 19.0% to 19.8%. Even within suburban communities, there was only one
community subtype that increased substantially—the Mature Suburbs, those postwar, moderate density,
moderate income suburbs along Route 128, whose share increased from 5.2% to 5.8%. All other suburban
community types (Established Suburbs, Maturing New England Towns, Country Suburbs) increased by less
than 0.2 percentage points or none at all. Furthermore, the increases in suburban poverty were
concentrated in only a small number of communities: the entire shift could be accommodated by five
Mature Suburbs whose share of the region’s poverty grew by more than 0.1%. Meanwhile, nearly half of
the region’s suburban towns had a decreasing share of the region’s poverty or no change at all.
These findings indicate that there has not been a profound and substantial movement in poverty from
urban to suburban communities in Metro Boston, but rather shifting patterns of poverty from one set of
urban communities to another set of urban communities, with only a handful of suburbs experiencing a
notable increase in low-income residents. The map on the following page depicts the change in share of
regional poverty for each municipality from 2000 to 2007 – 2011. It clearly demonstrates the complex
landscape of shifting poverty and indicates that more work is needed to understand the dynamics, timing,
and effects of suburban poverty if we are to develop effective and responsive policy solutions at the local,
regional, and federal level.
Conclusions and Next Steps
The analysis presented above demonstrates that poverty in Metro Boston remains a stubbornly urban
problem that has begun to affect a limited number of suburban communities. While our analysis differs
from that presented in Confronting Suburban Poverty, we share similar concerns: that anti-poverty efforts
across the region face substantial barriers due to lack of institutional capacity, fragmented decision
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making, and inflexible funding; and that some portion of the recent growth in poverty has occurred in small
jurisdictions with a limited capacity to respond.
However, we remain concerned that the book’s central statistic (the share of poverty in central cities) may
overstate (as it clearly does in Metro Boston) the amount of poverty that occurs in suburban communities,
leading some readers to conclude that traditional programs are misallocating resources to urban
communities. It may also lead readers to conclude that suburbs, as a group, are now welcoming lowerincome households to a degree that represents a historical shift or a change in the suburban housing
market. Finally, we question whether the urban-suburban dichotomy that characterizes the book’s website
and communication materials (if not the text itself) undermines the type of nuanced, regional thinking that
the work is intended to promote.
Two outstanding questions will guide the next steps in our research: first, do the few suburban communities
that have experienced an increase in poverty share characteristics—such as an aging population or a
weakening school system—that would help us to better understand why they have changed so
dramatically and what other municipalities might face similar challenges in the future; and second, how
does the new landscape of poverty relate to the traditional infrastructure of poverty alleviation, such as
entitlement communities, qualifying Census Tracts, CDC service areas, and the like? If indeed there is a
need to “reform and remake” federal policy, there is also a need to answer both of these questions at the
national level if that reformation is to be successful.
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Poverty in Metro Boston, by Community Type
2000 to 2007 - 2011
Community Sub-Type
in Poverty,
Share of
Rate, 2000
in Poverty,
Share of
Poverty Rate,
Cities of Boston and Cambridge6
Other Metro Core Municipality
Major Regional Urban Center
Streetcar Suburbs
Sub-Regional Urban Center
Mature Suburban Towns
Established Suburbs
Maturing New England Towns
Country Suburbs
Metro Boston
The denominator for calculation of the poverty rate is persons for whom a poverty status has been determined, which is smaller than the total population
While the cities of Boston and Cambridge are considered members of the Metro Core Community Sub-Type, they are presented here as their own type to
facilitate comparison to the analysis by Kneebone and Berube.
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