Since 2000, the nation’s poverty rate has been creeping inexorably upward, from a near-historic low of11.3 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in 2011. But in the suburbs, poverty has been exploding.

According to a new book released this week by researchers Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution, suburban poverty has soared by 64 percent in the last decade. The roughly 16.4 million suburban poor now outnumber the urban poor, and the pace of growth in suburban poverty is outmatching that of inner cities. In suburban Chicago, for example, the poverty rate has increased by an alarming 99 percent in the last ten years, while in Houston, the share of suburbanites in poverty has climbed by 103 percent.

By all rights, Kneebone and Berube’s work should catalyze the same public response as another classic work on American poverty, Michael Harrington’s 1962 book, The Other America. The shock to the conscience generated by Harrington’s book galvanized public outrage, leading to President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and the launch of the Great Society.

Alas, however, this is 2013.

And the modern advocates of a renewed war on poverty face a mountain of obstacles that Harrington’s allies did not confront 50 years ago and that could stymie all but incremental change.
For one thing, government – once the principal ally of anti-poverty advocates – has itself become part of the problem. Kneebone and Berube, for example, argue that current governmental programs – created when poverty was concentrated in inner-city slums – are ill-equipped to help a diffuse, suburban population. Public housing, for instance, is a classic example of a program aimed at the inner-city poor. Today’s suburban poor don’t live in the crowded, unsafe tenements that public housing replaced.

Moreover, the multiplicity of programs that have accreted in the past half-century have led to the creation of a creaky bureaucratic monolith that baffles all but the most determined advocates. Kneebone and Berube point to more than 80 different “place-based” anti-poverty programs spread across 10 agencies.

In fact, one of the hallmarks of the non-profit model programs they cite in their book are those that have managed to successfully cobble together a coherent social services program from dozens of siloed funding streams – in other words, non-profit efforts that are succeeding despite government, not because of it.

But the bigger obstacle to a new push against poverty is the radicalized subset of conservatives who both deny that poverty is a problem at all and who’ve successfully soured the public on the safety net. The Heritage Foundation’s website, for example, claims that “[t]he typical poor person in the United States has a far higher living standard than the public imagines.”

In a report titled “Air Conditioning, Cable TV and an Xbox,” Heritage argues that “the typical poor American had more living space than the average European.” and that while “[p]oor families certainly struggle to make ends meet, … in most cases, they are struggling to pay for air conditioning and the cable TV bill as well as to put food on the table.”

It’s certainly true that poverty today does not look like the poverty Harrington chronicled in the 1960s. But neither does typical “middle-class” life. In 1960, nearly 1 in 5 American homes lacked complete plumbing, and 1 in 10 homes had no flush toilet. More than 1 in 5 homes also had no telephone – unthinkable today.

While the absurdity of the Heritage Foundation’s line of argument is easy for policy elitists to dismiss (poverty is relative, not absolute, hello?), this argument still gets traction with the American public in ways that are ultimately very damaging to modern efforts to restarting a war on poverty.

One reason is the invisibility of the suburban poor. Even as Harrington wrote of the “socially invisible” poor and decried the ease with which middle-class Americans could turn aways, the sweatshops, tenements and slums he chronicles were all too obvious for anyone who cared to look. Today’s poor, however, are just as likely to live in tract houses with yards and front porches, even as their residents struggle in low-wage jobs without access to health care or transportation.

The second, and more insidious, reason that the Heritage line of argument has resonance is its congruence with the Tea Party narrative that equates all government spending with “waste” – a narrative that has caused lasting damage to Americans’ attitudes toward the poor.

In a 2012 poll by Pew, 71 percent of Americans agreed that “poor people have become too dependent on government assistance programs,” and only 43% said “the government should help more needy people even if it means going deeper in debt.” These numbers say it all.

Chronicling the phenomenon of modern poverty is an urgent and crucial first step for advocates of economic justice. But evidence may not be enough to undo the damage that conservatives have wreaked on Americans’ historic generosity of spirit and belief in a fairer America.

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