The American suburb, wreathed in manicured lawns and chock-a-block with malls and big-box retailers, has long been derided by social commentators. Mocked for being bland nowhere-lands of conspicuous consumption run amok or a breeding ground for soul-crushing social conformity, the ‘burbs tempted Americans, by the millions, away from crowded, dirty, and crime-ridden cities to the wide-open, if fenced-in, spaces just a short commute away.
Their boosters – mostly property developers and the corporate flimflam men who hawk the American Dream on the installment plan – mesmerized us with an idyllic vision of low taxes, less crime, good schools, wide boulevards, and breathing room for mom, dad, and their 2.5 children. Starting with the construction of Levittown, NY, the first truly mass-produced, private housing development in U.S. history, Americans with means flocked to these post-war consumer dreamlands. In the process, Levittown and the suburban civilization it helped create transformed American culture.
The suburbs, however, were never before called pits of poverty and despair. That particular epithet was always reserved for the American inner city and rural backwaters like Appalachia – places where failure and desperation collected, like refuse in a storm drain, and were ignored because of it. Poverty, like ethnic minorities and alternative lifestyles, was for most of the twentieth century something firmly banished from the wide streets, gleaming shopping centers, and car-strewn driveways of suburbia. It did not, simply put, exist there – or at least that’s what popular imagination would have us believe.
Like most of what was true in the 1950s and 1960s, this perception is no longer accurate. Indeed, as highlighted in a recent Brookings Institution report on the rise of suburban poverty in America, there are now more Americans living in poverty in the ‘burbs than there are poor residing within America’s blighted inner-city ghettos.
Breach of social contract
That’s right, many of the most desirable suburbs of yesteryear today have more in common with such failed towns as Flint, Michigan, than the glittering, Jetson-esque communities of tomorrow they were long billed to be.
According to the Brookings report, in 2011 America’s suburban poor outnumbered the urban poor by approximately three million people, and between 2000 and 2011, the number of suburban poor increased by 64 percent compared to a 29 percent increase in America’s urban core. Today, the suburban poor account for one in three poor people in America and, in fact, if you are poor and live in the Seattle, Atlanta, or Chicago metropolitan regions, you are more likely to live in one of the many suburbs ringing the central city than to reside within it.
How America’s famous crabgrass frontier went to seed is a microcosm of what went wrong in the country at large as one century ended and another began. The problem at root in both is a form of capitalism that, like a widening crack in a concrete slab, undermined the American economy by wringing every last bit of profit possible out of a dying economic order no matter the cost or long-term consequences. The ultimate settling of accounts in both stories culminated in the 2007-2008 housing market collapse, with this final debacle ripping off the thin veneer of widely-shared, middle-class prosperity that had for so long hidden growing, gaping holes in America’s unwritten social contract.
That social contract, built in the aftermath of the Great Depression and the Second World War, was an implicit deal between Americans as to how the U.S. economy would be structured. What emerged was a consensus that government would limit the money-amassing opportunities of the wealthy – either through taxation or regulation – while in return the working classes would forego abolishing capitalism through the vote. While both gained – the poor got government investment while the rich preserved a form capitalism they could continue to make money off of – the group to benefit the most from this post-war economic truce was the middle class.
This was because the middle class got the best of both worlds. They received government largess on a scale and scope never before seen in American history while the rich, constrained politically by the confines of the New Deal coalition that constructed and enforced America’s post-war social contract, effectively gave up their claims to leading American society.
As a result, the United States became a middle-class civilization as the rich abdicated responsibility for social leadership while the poor and working classes used the new resources directed to them by the government to build the foundations for entry, either for themselves or their children, into the great American middle class.
The suburbs, being the home of this newly dominant sector of society, prospered for decades as people moved on up and into ever bigger cookie-cutter housing developments. As with all things, however, the flaws of the suburbs became greater as more and more people attempted to gain entry. As the twentieth century rolled on into the twenty-first, the economic underpinnings of the consumption-driven, suburban, middle-class society that had fueled American growth were finally being threatened by its very success.
A harmonious — and precarious — society
The suburb was always premised on three fundamental prerequisites – cheap land, cheap energy and cheap finance. Cheap land, obviously, because without inexpensive, easy-to-develop land upon which to build houses, the suburbs could not physically exist. Cheap energy, because without inexpensive fuel to power homes and gas-driven cars, suburbanites could not afford to live in their idyllic surrounds. Finally, cheap finance was required because easy-to-obtain mortgages gotten on good terms greatly defrayed the upfront costs of purchasing a home on Mayberry Lane.
Moreover, since the suburbs constructed in the decades after Levitttown could not exist as independent entities on their own, they at all times required some economic entity – either a larger urban municipality or the state and federal government – to serve as a host. This is because suburbanites are basically parasites – they commute, on government-funded roads, to jobs located elsewhere in a given region but take their resulting incomes home with them, depriving the central urban core of the additional property and sales tax revenues that suburbanites’ relatively high incomes make possible. Without this economic subsidy where the cost of civilization is defrayed to others, suburbs could not exist.
Finally, the American suburb is also premised on the development of a shared sense of communal identity based on growing up in a (moneyed) place like the suburbs. It seems quaint, but coffee klatches, church socials, parent-teacher organizations, service lodges, bowling leagues, and other now-rare examples of shared, communal activity tied people together who otherwise had little in common. It also built up a community’s social capital and created a coterie of civic-minded individuals who could rise up the ranks to fill leadership positions as the young community grew. In essence, people from villages left for cities in order to become rich and, once wealthy, re-created the village – sans dirt, congestion, and poor people – in the ‘burbs.
Thus, the prosperous American suburb was the product of several factors that all had to be in sync for the dream of suburban living to come to fruition. Take any one of those away, and the smooth machine that built houses, created communities, and made instant Mayberrys just outside of cities all across America would misfire. Take them all away and it would come to a shuddering, catastrophic halt.
The periphery cannot hold
That the model had flaws first came to light with the energy crises of 1973 and 1979, when political problems in the Middle East reverberated around the world to create gas lines here in America. Since the outlying suburbs had long-since grown past the need for commuter rail lines due to the automobile and the growth of the sprawling highway system, suburbanites were hit especially hard as the real cost of commuting long distances to and from work skyrocketed.
America and the markets responded by bringing additional oil resources into production and increasing the fuel efficiency of the US car fleet, and for twenty years the suburbs returned to business as usual. The great run up in oil prices at the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, brought home once again the utter reliance of suburbia on cheap and plentiful gasoline. This time, however, high gas prices seem here to stay, as their recent increase is at least partly attributable to much higher demand in places like China and India – whose billions of consumers want to live and drive just like Americans.
Likewise, the era of cheap land may also be approaching a natural limit as inner suburbs effectively become as crowded and expensive as the urban cores they were originally designed to be refuges from. This has forced developers to go even further out from the central city in search of cheap land to develop – making the homes that are subsequently built, in the so-called exurbs, even further away from jobs and services. This, in turn, makes them more costly in the long run as commuters, jammed onto freeways that can barely hold them, make daily marathons simply to work, shop, and live.
As for cheap finance, the debacle wherein low-cost mortgages were given away to anyone who could breathe showed clearly the limits to which finance, taken to extremes, could go in terms of moving housing markets and building development tracts. Cheap loans could not, however, sustain communities indefinitely when the costs of owning homes went up dramatically or the jobs that supported home ownership disappeared entirely – like what happened, quickly and violently, in 2007 and 2008.
The question of jobs, though, is also a problem that has long been in the making. Deindustrialization, while good for big business and finance, has not been good for working- and middle-class America – whose employment, financial security, and economic future have been put at greater risk as the United States has integrated more fully into global markets. Cities like Detroit and Cleveland have been devastated by job losses while the working class, which once found factory employment plentiful and easy to get, has found itself increasingly under- or unemployed. No longer can working class people live and consume just like the middle class – for too many, the drying up of available jobs has made living the dream in the American suburb too expensive an option to seriously consider.
Trapped in the suburbs
All this could be lessened if government – state, local, and national – could provide a countervailing force by providing the funds necessary to redevelop and revitalize urban cores by rebuilding infrastructure, improving the quality of and access to education, reducing crime, and making a concerted effort to promote business-friendly tax and regulatory policies that facilitate business investment. Unfortunately, paralysis at the national level prevents the federal government from doing much other than dithering while the capture of most state and local governments by special interests — who are vested in keeping the sprawl model going for as long and as far as possible — limits what can be done by most cities and states.
The result is our modern system of development sprawl that is driven mostly by the short-term profit motives of lenders and home builders, not the overall health or needs of a greater geographic region. It is a model that pits municipalities against one another for road money and developer investment, and which greatly limits cooperation between various stakeholders – be they civic-minded businessmen, politicians, community organizations, or voters – for fear of losing out on a big dollop of cash from the next big real estate deal. It is a system that has built homes no one wants — in places no one wants to move to — and which people can ill afford anyway. Developers, bankers, and captured state and local governments have not just built a bridge to nowhere, but entire communities in which America’s poor are increasingly trapped.
‘Trapped’ is a difficult place to be — the suburban poor not only lack the easy transport to jobs that their urban peers enjoy in the form of cheap and reliable public transportation, the suburbs are also profoundly lacking in public services for the poor that are also readily available in larger cities. Perhaps more profoundly, however, poverty in suburbia is likely more self-isolating and community-defeating than is the case in both rural and urban America.
This is because many poor rural and urban communities still share, despite their poverty, a sense of identity that a mere lack of money cannot deny membership to. In the suburbs, the place where America’s materialistic dreams are supposed to take place, the only thing folks have in common is money – which facilitates every interaction and social gathering like grease on gears. It takes money, after all, to gas up a car in order to get to a coffee klatch on time. Take that away and what do you have? Just some standard, American poor people – who typically don’t live in detached, single-family homes on a pleasant, tree-lined street somewhere in New Mayberry Place, USA.
Admitting to the problem of poverty in suburbia is in effect admitting to the fact that something has gone deeply and profoundly wrong in America. It is the evidence that puts the nail in the coffin on the hoary idea that the American Dream can be sold to us in the form of monthly mortgage payments made for thirty years on end.
It means that in the country that was billed as the place to escape to, not even the suburbs – the place built as a refuge from the rest of America – are free of the problems we have spent so much time collectively telling ourselves don’t exist here. It turns out they do – we just have to look past our intellectual fence pickets to see them.