What is the iconic geography of the last Great Recession? Some think that Detroit and its litany of ruin porn is emblematic of the latest economic implosion. I disagree. Behold Sun Belt suburban blight:
THE statistics are worthy of Detroit or Newark: almost half the children in the local schools are from families poor enough to be eligible for free or cut-price lunches; a tenth of households qualify for food stamps; one in eight residents gets free meals from soup kitchens or food banks; perhaps one in 12 has suffered a recent spell of homelessness. Yet the spot in question is not a benighted rust-belt city, but Sarasota, Florida—a balmy, palm-studded resort town on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico.The Sarasota-Bradenton metropolitan area, a two-county sprawl of condominiums, marinas and retirement homes, saw the proportion of people living below the poverty line rise by more between 2007 and 2009 than any other big city in America, from 9.2% to 13.7%, according to the Census Bureau. Nor is Sarasota an aberration. All the other metropolitan areas that saw jumps of four points or more are also formerly fast-growing southern and western cities: Bakersfield, California; Boise, Idaho; Greenville, South Carolina; Lakeland, Florida and Tucson, Arizona. Arizona now has the second highest poverty rate in the nation, after Mississippi. The especially severe housing bust that ended the breakneck growth of these sunbelt cities has brought with it deprivation on a scale they have never previously encountered and are struggling to address.Poor inner cities in the Midwest and north-east still have higher overall poverty rates, but in recent years, notes Elizabeth Kneebone of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, poverty has grown fastest in the suburbs, especially in the sunbelt. A third of America’s poor, she notes, now live in suburban areas. Many cities in the sunbelt, adds Margaret Simms of the Urban Institute, are suffering from what it calls “double trouble”, meaning a plunge both in property values and employment, with concomitant jumps in poverty. This trend is significant, says Scott Allard of the University of Chicago, since it is harder for the poor to seek assistance and to hunt for jobs amid the suburban sprawl.
In years to come, Sports Illustrated will turn its attention from Aliquippa to Sarasota. Suburban poverty will yield the hardened football players that used to hail from Youngstown or Beaver Falls. Neighborhoods are full of empty houses. Developments remain unfinished. Legacy costs will cripple Sun Belt municipalities as the population ages rapidly and young people leave in droves.
That is not to claim that the Aliquippas of the Rust Belt will rebound as much of the Sun Belt undergoes decline. From the same SI article referenced above:
The J&L mill, battered by cheap, inventive Japanese products and taken over by the Ohio-based LTV Corporation, began shutting down nearly 30 years ago, and closed for good in 2000. Pittsburgh has made a successful transition to the new economy, but "Aliquippa's in a weird place," says Pitt labor economist Chris Briem. "It's not the center of the region, it's not the city, it's not quite rural. What is the competitiveness of towns that used to have a reason for being—and don't anymore?"
The Rust Belt is rising in places that do have a reason for being. We tend to think of this part of America as littered with cities like Aliquippa. That's a mistake. Likewise, we shouldn't condemn all of the Sun Belt to the fate of Sarasota. These large geographic abstractions offer almost no guidance for policy. But boosters will continue to point to the success of Dallas or Charlotte. What, me worry? The Sun Belt has still got it. The Rust Belt is still depressed.