More About Mad Men and Their Suburban Communities

Written By Hazel Weiser

Back in the days about which Tea Partiers seem naively nostalgic—the pre-Civil Rights 1960s, before the Beatles invasion, before JFK was assassinated—there was plenty of poverty in the United States.  OK, I’m making another reference to Mad Men, the AMC drama series that reveals the racist, sexist underbelly of post-World War II America.  (I can’t help myself, because Don Draper, played by handsome Jon Hamm, is falling apart stripping away the illusion of the perfection of those neat little suburban communities.)

Back then  I recall the day I learned about pervasive poverty.  I was in the eighth grade, Miss Welch’s geography class.  She announced in her precise diction  (I can still hear her dentalized “t” in my head)  that 20% of the population of this country lived in poverty.  My arm shot up, I had to ask the question: Why?

Miss Welch considered my question impertinent, as usual, and told me that poverty rates were fairly stable.

Some fifty years later, the poverty rate in the United States stands at 18.9% according to the American Community Survey for 2008-2009 of the US Census Bureau, years that include the beginning of the housing crash and recession.  In 2009, the number of people living in poverty increased to 42.9 million.  Consider that number for a moment; it’s breathtaking.  Thirty-one states saw increases in both the number and percentage of people in poverty, and no state had a statistically significant decline in either the number or rate of poverty.

Now there is a new center of poverty: the suburbs.  Those tree-lined streets of “little boxes, little boxes,” the McMansions, the Levittowns, the housing boom of the Bush era, the colonials in Westchester filled with alcoholic “Mad Men” and their alcoholic wives.  The suburbs, according to a new study posted yesterday by the Center for American Progress is now the home of one-third of our nation’s poor.

Since 2000 there has been a startling increase in poverty, up 37%, in suburban communities. This increase in poverty, much of it hidden in single-family homes, outpaced the poverty increase nationwide, which was only 26%, if we can imagine minimizing the impact of that figure.   The Brookings Institute issued its study last month, and its importance in understanding the fear and despair of voters was buried by the avalanche of high election media drama.

Between 2007 and 2009, the poverty rate increased in 57 of the 100 largest metro areas, with the largest increases clustered in the Sun Belt. Florida metro areas like Bradenton and Lakeland, and California metro areas like Bakersfield, Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, and Modesto, each experienced increases in their poverty rates of more than 3.5 percentage points.”

1992 was the first national election where a majority of voters came from the suburbs.  Nat Silver of fivethirtyeight.com fame does an interesting demographic analysis of the shift in populations from rural to urban to suburban. Back in 1992, the year that Bill Clinton was elected president, suburbanites were the prosperous Americans.  Now they are ashamed, living in houses they can’t afford, many drowning in inflated mortgages, unemployed or underemployed, and without access to  public transportation systems to get them to potential work sites.  The suburbs that erupted in this last housing boom are certainly neither sustainable—too big, too many appliances—or within walkable communities—many were developed far outside employment zones.  With housing prices so deflated, unemployed homeowners can’t sell their houses to move to where there might be employment.

And more than 20% of our children are living in poverty, too. One in seven American children has an unemployed parent; one child in every four currently rely on food stamps, and half of all kids will use food stamps at some point during their childhood.  This pervasive insecurity will affect the education, motivation, and ability of each of these children to become an economically independent adult.  Have we lost another generation?

In urban areas, at least, there are institutions, dating back to the settlement houses, to help with the impact of poverty.  There are not very many safety nets in suburban communities and those nonprofits that do operate outside urban areas are reaching their limits.  According to the Brookings Institute study, 70% of nonprofits are seeing an increase in the number of people seeking services.

Who would have thought that we would be including suburban residents in our categories of vulnerable populations?

In March 2010, SALT and Golden Gate University School of Law co-sponsored “Vulnerable Populations, Economic Realities,” a teaching conference that examined how to interject issues of poverty, race, class, sexual orientation, disability–those factors that create poor people in the US–into law school curriculum, clinics, externships, and study abroad programs.  Those presentations have been turned into essays and will be forthcoming in a new book, to be published in January 2011 by Carolina Academic Press.  The book is titled “Vulnerable Populations and Transformative Law Teaching: A Critical Reader.  Watch for its publication date.