The Suburban Mystique

How the symbol of American prosperity became the new place of poverty.

Perfect picket fence house collaged with run-down older home. Series: Suburban Slide.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Thinkstock.

In Suburban Slide, the Better Life Lab explores the changing face of poverty in the United States and how the symbol of American prosperity became the new place of poverty. In a six-part series, we explore what this means for Americans’ work-life conflicts and American identity in general.

In Betty Friedan’s seminal 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, she describes the experience of the languishing American housewife. By staying at home to raise families and keep house in the suburbs, women had set aside their own happiness and potential for life in both the public and private spheres, and despair was the result. She called this the problem that had no name. Though she garnered legitimate criticism for its limited and privileged framing of women and their status, the book galvanized a generation. Decades after women entered the workforce en masse, in part due to Friedan’s inspiration, a new problem has emerged. Inconsistent and insufficient income, housing, transportation, and social supports have created immense and widespread work-life conflict, often among women who entered the workforce not for feminist self-actualization but to feed their families. And no where do we see this work-life conflict more intensely than in the places Friedan once described as serenely boring: the suburbs.

For decades, the suburbs were seen as havens where people moved to escape the crowding, poverty, and problems of the inner city. Despite the pervasive stereotype, the suburbs were never universally affluent or white, and since the 2000s, as a majority of Americans have settled in suburbs, the “burbs” have become increasingly diverse, both economically and demographically. Poverty has concentrated increasingly in poor suburbs, surpassing low-income populations in urban and rural areas and upending assumptions about what it means to “move to opportunity.”

Now, moving to this long sought after “better place” doesn’t necessarily translate into better jobs and benefits, less exclusionary zoning and housing, or access to capital or community amenities. In the American imagination, suburbs are white-majority places of opportunity, affluence, jobs, and conversely, urban environments are black and riddled with poverty, crime, and failing schools. As Scott Allard points out in his book Places in Need, despite the fact that white Americans make up the majority of the U.S. poor, and that poverty now concentrates in suburbs, media and scholarly portrayals still disproportionately focus on the “urban poor,” and white people settle in white neighborhoods because they associate black residents with poverty.

Sociologist and poverty-expert Mark Rank suggests that the majority of Americans will experience poverty in their lifetimes: “We think of poverty as something that happens to someone else, and not ourselves. But actually, the longer you live, the more likely it is that you’ll lose a job, have your family split up, or experience an illness.” Suburbs—where most Americans, impoverished or otherwise, live—are increasingly the locus of work-life conflict and economic insecurity.

And this is an important change, because addressing poverty is harder in the suburbs than in urban areas. The biggest reason is that suburbs exist in a policy blindspot—policy for poverty alleviation largely focuses on urban and rural areas. And since suburban identity is culturally tied to a myth of the American dream, not to mention a long legacy of racism—a space where the affluent have historically segregated themselves from the black and poor—admitting there is a problem, and creating policies to help poor and middle-income struggling families, requires introspection and new political will. Additionally, the suburbs occupy a geography that offers neither the density of jobs and community of urban spaces, nor the tightknit if geographically spread apart communities of rural spaces. In the suburbs you may be further from family, friends, or neighbors to help with care responsibilities, as well as work and social supports.

Suburbs are not monolithic, nor are experiences of poverty or economic insecurity there. Elizabeth Kneebone, author of Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, suggests: “It’s not just that there are more poor people moving to suburbs, it’s also about the downward mobility of longtime suburban residents” due to wage stagnation, privatization of benefits like retirement, rise of contract and service work, and effects of the Great Recession. Wide variation between suburban experiences depends on the time when poverty developed and grew there. As in cities, there are differences between black, white, and hispanic suburbanite experiences—to name a few—and each suburb has its own history of who it was meant to serve and why.

According to sociologist Alexandra Murphy,The history of these places really matters—places that grew poor during the War on Poverty—a lot of de-industrializing (Northeastern) cities—had more access to social services than places that grew poor in the 1990s. Places that saw the hollowing out of middle class due to industry decline in the 1960s look a lot more like urban spaces than other places that don’t have that history. How those communities view poverty is shaped by how it emerged and the resources available to them.” Camden, New Jersey, Murphy notes, is technically an industrial suburb of Philadelphia, urban as it feels. As is East St. Louis, Illinois, as Jennifer Hammer examines in her book, Abandoned in the Heartland. While some suburbs look and act like cities, most are far less equipped to address poverty or even to recognize it as a problem to begin with.

That’s because the depth and extremity of poverty nationwide has objectively worsened in the past several decades. Largely attributed to people being pushed off welfare in the 1990s, 3.2 million people now live on less than $2 per day in the United States, as documented by Philip Alston and sociologists Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer. Problems we associate with the efforts of USAID abroad—infant and maternal mortality rates, decreasing life expectancy stratified by class and race, access to clean water, and extremely low incomes—now lie at home.

So why have the suburbs become the new locus of this poverty? It’s a combination of factors. In addition to people in the suburbs simply getting poorer, low and middle-income people facing economic insecurity move to suburbs for opportunity. Changing immigration flows also factor in. Kneebone suggests that immigrants are increasingly bypassing cities as they come to the United States, though research by Roberto Suro and his colleagues indicates that immigrants account for a fraction of the increase in suburban poverty—roughly 17 percent.

For too long, the work-life conflict conversation has evoked the image of a stable, if demanding and stressful job, with stable income, in a stable environment. In this imagined scenario, the problem is that with everyone working and Betty Friedan’s American housewife no longer at home, there’s simply too little time for life. But the true challenges of work-life conflict in the suburbs paint a more complicated picture: No one struggles with just one issue, but rather they juggle the needs for a stable income, housing, social services, and transportation. In this series, we bring together work-life experts with experts on housing, income trends, social supports in our communities, and poverty, to consider how the new realities of the suburbs have changed the realities of what it means to combine work and life responsibilities for Americans. In part, this series aims to replace the images of the suburbs we might hold in our heads from Friedan’s time with images that better match the new reality. Unless we can see the problem—and name it—we won’t be able to solve it.