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Elizabeth Kneebone on the growth of suburban poverty


Elizabeth Kneebone, MPP’03, is likely to be coming soon to a city near you. For the next year or so, she will be traveling from one end of the United States to the other, visiting more than a dozen cities.

Her journey is occasioned by the publication of her new book, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, which she co-wrote with her Brookings Institution colleague Alan Berube, but it will be more than a typical book tour.

“In addition to participating in public forums to discuss the book and its recommendations, Alan and I will also meet with policy-makers, funders, and other stakeholders to engage in discussions about how to deal more effectively with the rapidly changing landscape of poverty in America,” said Kneebone, who is a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.

The book’s startling findings about the rapid growth and broad extent of poverty in the suburbs have garnered attention from media throughout the country. Among other things, Kneebone and Berube report that within the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan regions, the poor population in suburbs increased by 64 percent between 2000 and 2011, compared with a growth rate of 29 percent in central cities. While urban poverty rates still remain higher than suburban rates, there are now more poor Americans living in suburbs–16.4 million—than in cities—13.4 million.

“Despite the stereotypical view of suburbs as middle-class, affluent, Leave-It-To-Beaver type places, suburbs have grown increasingly more diverse, both demographically and economically,” Kneebone observed. “But as a society we have been slow to see the growing economic hardship in suburbs and slow at coming up with effective ways to address it.” In addition to her book’s delineation of the extent, nature and sources of suburban poverty, it extensively discusses near-term and longer-term policy options.

Kneebone has been closely studying metropolitan patterns and issues since she joined Brookings in 2006, but she can trace the path that brought her to Brookings and her book back to her final year of college. A history major, she was working on a senior thesis that involved reading recently declassified cables among American officials regarding the student and worker uprisings in Paris in 1968.

“I began to wonder what policy considerations lay behind the cables,” she recalled, “and I became very interested in how policy gets formulated, how it gets communicated, and how it informs action. And I began to think that I might want to be involved in those kinds of decisions myself.”

Setting aside the idea that she would go to graduate school to become a college history professor, she decided instead to learn more about the ins and outs of policymaking at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.

“The Harris School turned out to be just what I had hoped for, and just what I needed,” she said. “I needed to strengthen my quantitative skills and my grounding in data analysis, and I wanted to build a skill set that would help me evaluate and formulate constructive policy action. It was all there for me, and more—engaged faculty, diverse experiences, and a great mix of students with different backgrounds and interests, many of whom have become lifelong friends.”

After graduating, she worked at IFF (formerly the Illinois Facilities Fund), where she examined statewide patterns of supply and demand for services such as early childhood care and education.

“IFF didn’t just identify problems through research, it had resources to do something about those problems, through its loan fund and its real estate development arm,” she said. “Research had an impact—we’d do a study and it would lead to action. That was a really rewarding process to be a part of.”

Although her research domain at IFF was statewide, Kneebone focused a lot on the suburbs around Chicago, since that was where many of the greatest mismatches between demand and supply were found. It was there that she first began noticing the extent of suburban poverty. At Brookings, she authored and co-authored a number of reports highlighting that phenomenon.

Almost half of Confronting Suburban Poverty in America is devoted to a discussion of policy considerations.

“Given the size of the need and the strain on resources, we need to help metropolitan leaders and organizations find ways to do more than one thing in more than one place at the same time, and there are a number of short-term steps that policymakers, practitioners, and funders could take to help pave the way for those types of solutions,” Kneebone said.

Informed by innovative examples in regions across the country, she points to the three core principles that underpin the book’s recommendations: “First, we need to support organizations and approaches that work at a sufficiently large scale to reach more communities and provide a broad range of services. Second, effective collaboration and integration across programs and jurisdictions is key to overcoming the challenges of a fragmented system. And third, in a time when resources are stretched or shrinking, we need to focus on models that deploy public and private dollars in strategic ways with a strong focus on achieving identified outcomes.”

For longer-term systemic change, the book also lays out a proposal for a Metropolitan Opportunity Challenge, a competitive federal initiative for states and metro areas that would help regional leaders and organizations harness multiple programs strategically to increase access to economic opportunity region-wide.

—Jerry de Jaager

This article was originally published on the Harris website on August 6, 2013. Photo courtesy Elizabeth Kneebone.