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Suburbs Struggle to Aid the Sprawling Poor

Poverty in suburbs now outnumbers poverty in cities, a shift that’s put a major strain on public services and is easily visible in Austin, Texas.

01 Austin opening
Poverty has existed in American suburbs for decades, but not to the extent it exists today.
Sebron Snyder
This story is part of a series on gentrification, which appears online and in the February 2015 print issue.

Jodi Duron, while in her first year as the superintendent of a central Texas school district in 2011, was preparing for classes when a staffer asked her an alarming question: How did she feel about admitting kids to class without up-to-date immunizations? 

Letting unvaccinated children attend school is against the law in Texas, as it is in every state. So Duron said the Elgin Independent School District would follow the law. As the staff member was leaving, though, Duron remembers stopping and asking him, “How many kids are we talking about?”

“About 700,” he said. 

Duron wondered how so many of the district’s 4,300 students had managed to fall behind on their shots. After all, these weren’t schools in chronically poor inner-city neighborhoods. Elgin is a growing Texas suburb, a half-hour drive from the Austin city limits. Still, it lacked many basic services. There was only one pediatrician in town, and he was not taking new patients. The nearest doctors accepting new patients were in Austin itself or in Bastrop, a 20-minute drive in the opposite direction.

Suburban or not, the families who send children to the Elgin school district are largely poor. Nearly 70 percent of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. About 300 are classified as homeless. Even for those families that have cars, work schedules and the lack of insurance often prevent them from getting medical care. 

So Duron and the school district scrambled to bring in health-care providers to vaccinate the kids who needed their shots before school started in two weeks. Later that year, a health clinic in one of the school buildings was opened to students, staff and the entire community. The Elgin school district started giving students breakfast during class time to make sure they were fed when they started learning. It also began offering all-day pre-K so children would be up to speed when they started kindergarten.

In short, the Elgin school district is constructing a new safety net to meet new demand in the suburbs. In doing so, the district has plenty of company among local governments both in the Austin area and around the country. “The geography of need has changed,” says John-Michael Cortez, a former board member of the Austin Community College District. “Poverty is much more dispersed than it was 10 to 15 years ago.”

Sebron Snyder

The gentrification of Austin's East Side is pushing low-income residents to the suburbs. (Sebron Snyder)

Poverty has existed in American suburbs for decades, but not to the extent it exists today. A study by the Brookings Institution published in 2013 reported that the number of Americans living in poverty jumped from 33.9 million to 46.2 million between 2000 and 2010. The biggest growth took place in the suburbs. “With this dramatic expansion in suburban poverty during the 2000s, metropolitan America crossed an economic Rubicon,” Brookings researchers Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube wrote. More poor Americans now live in suburbs than in cities.

Poverty has been growing in vastly different kinds of suburban territory. Inner-ring suburbs, abandoned by wealthier residents who pulled up stakes in pursuit of more modern and spacious housing, are now attracting low-income families looking for more affordable places to live. Farther out from city borders, the housing market collapse and job losses of the Great Recession have taken a huge toll on communities where growth was fueled by cheap credit and residents’ optimistic planning. Even predominantly wealthy suburbs have seen an influx of lower-income families trying to live close to new jobs.

The geographic shift in poverty has put a major strain on public services. Nonprofit agencies are usually structured and located to deal with urban poverty. Outreach efforts -- from health clinics and food pantries to legal services and subsidized housing -- are still clustered in city neighborhoods. Providers are trying to figure out how to make those services available to a population scattered throughout sprawling metropolitan regions.

The growth in suburban poverty has been especially rapid in the Austin area. The number of poor people living in Austin’s suburbs more than doubled between 2000 and 2012, while the poor population within the city limits actually decreased. In fact, according to Brookings, the Austin area saw a bigger percentage growth of poor suburbanites than any other U.S. metropolitan area except Boise, Idaho. 

MORE: View gentrification maps and data for Austin

Since that analysis, the pace of change in the Austin area seems to have accelerated. U.S. Census estimates show that, from 2012 to 2013, the poverty rate in the city of Austin dropped from 20.3 percent to 17.8 percent. In the same year, the poverty rate in nearby Bastrop County -- where much of the Elgin school district is located -- is reported to have jumped from 10.7 percent in 2012 to 22.8 percent in 2013. Those figures are still preliminary and may be hard to believe. But they are well beyond the survey’s margin of error, and they correspond to the very rapid changes local leaders report seeing every day.

The demographic rearrangement around Austin has been driven by the tremendous economic boom and resulting population growth the city has experienced in recent years. In the last decade, Austin has added nearly 200,000 residents. At last count, its population was 885,000.

The affluent newcomers drawn by technology jobs have driven up the price of housing near downtown. The tallest building dotting the skyline, in fact, is a five-year-old 56-story residential building half a mile from the Texas Capitol. Prices of condominiums in the building start at $1.5 million. The demand for housing has also pushed up prices in East Austin, traditionally the center of the city’s poorer African-American population. As cheaper areas become gentrified, many longtime residents are moving to the suburbs. 

The growth in suburban poverty in the Austin area is visible on the city’s eastern outskirts, in a neighborhood known as Del Valle. The area straddles the city’s border, but it is cut off from the rest of Austin by the airport and a new toll road. 

A subdivision of double-wide mobile homes, with signs advertising “Homes in the $30s,” is sprouting up behind the local middle school. The homes are modest, but they feature familiar elements of quiet suburban life: freshly planted trees, green lawns and a car parked on every concrete driveway. A little farther from the city, though, in the older Stony Point subdivision, run-down cars line muddy driveways. Children play in cluttered yards. Crowing roosters roam and barking dogs sprint along wire fences.

With no grocery stores or restaurants nearby, residents of Del Valle crowd nearby gas stations at noon to buy food. A Texaco includes a “Bread Basket” convenience store. A new Exxon includes a “Tienda Mexicana” selling fresh fruit, sweetbreads, bulk cans of beans and meat from a butcher, alongside gas station staples like candy, cigarettes and fast food.

Sebron Snyder

A new subdivision of double-wide mobile homes is sprouting up in Del Valle, but there's no grocery store nearby. (Sebron Snyder)

But poverty in the Austin suburbs is not limited to isolated enclaves. It continues to grow rapidly in more than one direction. In Pflugerville, a prosperous suburb north of the city, the number of low-income residents has doubled since 2007. “We are growing at all income levels,” says Jeremy Martin of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. Citing a Forbes magazine analysis of cities nationwide, he adds, “We have the highest growth of low-income jobs, the highest growth of middle-income jobs and the highest growth of high-income jobs.” 

Those jobs often are located in the same places. Restaurants and retail outlets open locations to cater to prosperous office workers, creating jobs for servers, cooks and clerks as well. So the dispersal of low-income workers affects places where few residents are poor.  

Take Cedar Park, a city of 61,000 people to the north of Austin. It is the fourth-fastest growing suburb in the country and has a median household income of more than $77,000. More than two-thirds of its residents have at least some college education, and nearly half hold a four-year degree or better.

But Cedar Park Councilman Don Tracy says significant changes are afoot. Federal data show that the vast majority of new residents in Williamson County, where Cedar Park is located, come from Travis County, which includes Austin. These new households earn average incomes of $46,000. Meanwhile, Cedar Park is attracting jobs, but not the kind of high-paying jobs needed to live in the suburb’s richer neighborhoods. City studies show that 94 percent of the residents with jobs work outside of 

Cedar Park, while 89 percent of the people who work there live elsewhere. “Our community essentially flips every single day,” Tracy says.

Cedar Park opted out of the Austin area’s transit system in the 1990s, so the only practical way for most people to get around is by car. Some of its main thoroughfares carry 50,000 vehicles a day. The city is trying to expand those roadways, but Tracy expects that the transportation headaches will only get worse as Cedar Park and surrounding communities continue to grow. 

Capital Metro, the area’s main transit agency, only serves Austin and other municipalities that voted to pay a 1-cent sales tax to support it. To provide some transit to the unincluded areas, the local community college is helping pay for a bus to connect its Cedar Park campus to a Capital Metro station. Still, service to outlying areas is very limited. The bus that serves Elgin, for example, makes three trips into Austin before 8 a.m. and three return trips in the early evening. For the rest of the day, there is no service.

Sebron Snyder

Bus service to the suburbs is infrequent. Buses traveling from Manor to Austin, for example, only leave in the morning. (Sebron Snyder)

Transportation issues are having an impact on other problems that Austin and its suburbs are trying hard to solve. “We tend to take the position that Austin doesn’t have as much of an affordable housing problem as it has a transportation problem,” says Chris Schreck, the economic development manager for the Capital Area Council of Governments. “There’s lots of affordable housing not that far from downtown Austin.” But traffic and limited public transit options, he says, have an “isolating effect.”

To make his point, he pulls out a map showing median prices of homes in the Austin area. To the west of Interstate 35, including downtown, prices are indeed high. East of the notoriously traffic-choked artery, prices remain low.

Getting to those areas with affordable housing, though, is no easy task. The eastern suburbs of Austin, such as Elgin, are small towns now absorbing big population increases. (Elgin was portrayed as the iconic rural town of West Canaan in the movie Varsity Blues.) They are connected to Austin and to each other by divided highways that, between population centers, stretch past miles of cattle ranches, billboards and low-slung corrugated steel buildings. 

Many of these communities are just beginning to deal with the challenges of increased poverty and the difficulty of addressing the needs of new residents and workers. Population change is putting a financial strain on local governments. While the city of Austin and its school districts are seeing their revenues grow because their property values are shooting up, outlying local governments with growing needs generated by increased poverty are not getting the benefit of the new tax money. 

Suburban public officials also worry about image problems. On the one hand, they need to respond to the needs of their own citizens, especially those with low incomes. On the other hand, in order to attract jobs and services for those citizens, they want to put their best foot forward. That often means not drawing too much attention to growing poverty and related problems in the areas they represent.

To cope with their sometimes bewildering set of challenges, local governments are leaning as much as possible on local nonprofit groups. Cedar Park’s leadership, for example, is asking its nonprofits to help the city identify emerging needs. “People don’t tend to turn to government first when they’re in trouble,” Tracy says. “They go to their friends, they go to their churches, they go to nonprofits first. Government is a last resort for many of them.”

But Debbie Bresette, the president of the United Way for Greater Austin, says it can be difficult for nonprofits and their donors to adjust to the rapid changes. “People have spent so much [time] being focused on crisis where the majority of people have congregated, like downtown Austin and the homeless,” she says. Many area nonprofits are starting to realize how quickly poverty is growing in the suburbs, but refocusing their efforts there will take time. 

One natural place for them to start has been with school districts. Schools have the physical facilities and the organization that nonprofits need to reach their communities. In Elgin and the nearby town of Manor, nonprofits are working with schools to provide students and their families with scholarships, health and behavioral counseling, food, clothing, school supplies and emergency relief. 

The schools are facing new kinds of challenges in their classrooms as well, largely as a result of the burgeoning population of residents from foreign countries. In the Manor Independent School District, more than a third of the students have limited English proficiency -- nearly double the percentage from a decade ago. They speak 35 different languages. Recruiting teachers for those students is a major challenge for districts in central Texas, and districts like Manor are offering incentives for them and expanding teacher recruitment beyond the state.

Sebron Snyder

Superintendent Kevin Brackmeyer wants to increase the earning potential of high school graduates. (Sebron Snyder)

Under Superintendent Kevin Brackmeyer, the Manor district, now up to 8,600 students, is stressing the importance of attendance -- even going so far as to put up a billboard on a local highway to remind students that attendance matters. One day, Brackmeyer found himself dealing with a new kind of problem for his suburban district: a frequently absent student who was married and had two children. He was skipping school to work because he had to pay the bills. In all likelihood, Brackmeyer says, that student won’t end up going to college, but he would benefit from a better paying job. 

To help students like him, Brackmeyer hopes to take advantage of a 2013 Texas law that clears the way for schools to offer graduating students professional certificates to become HVAC specialists, certified nursing assistants, dental assistants or other specialized occupations. The district could work with Austin Community College or local employers like Samsung to train students for those jobs. If students walked out of high school able to earn $18 an hour, it would help narrow the poverty gap, Brackmeyer says. “It pays much more than working at Sonic for the minimum wage.”

This story is part of a series on gentrification, which appears online and in the February 2015 print issue.

Austin Gentrification Map

The following map shows the extent to which Austin neighborhoods have gentrified since 2000. (Click to view interactive map)

Dan is Governing’s transportation and infrastructure reporter.
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