Rockingham County, North Carolina, has never been known for its opulence, but until recently most residents would not have hesitated to describe it as comfortably middle class. For several decades the county, a rectangular block of land in the north central part of the state, owed its prosperity to textile mills and tobacco plants, industries that weren't always friendly to unions but that nevertheless furnished the local workforce with jobs that paid enough to raise a family and buy a nice house somewhere.
Among those to do so was Johnny Price, a 44-year-old African-American who lives in a ranch house with green shutters on a street called Sparrow in a leafy residential subdivision on the outskirts of the town of Eden. Two towering oak trees dominate Price's front lawn. In his driveway sits a navy blue station wagon. By the standards of some newly-built suburbs, the setup is modest, but for Price, the youngest of ten children whose father died when he was 6 and whose mother worked as a domestic servant, it's a testament to the rewards of hard work and perseverance, values he's tried to instill in his teenage son and daughter, who have lived with him since he and his wife divorced.
Lately this has gotten more challenging. A year ago Price lost the job he'd held for nineteen years in company-wide layoffs at Unified, a textile manufacturer. He's now struggling to make do on $1,168 in monthly unemployment benefits and, like many people in Rockingham County, which has been ravaged by plant closings in recent years, wondering how long he'll be able to continue paying his mortgage.
Stories of downward mobility in America's suburbs have not exactly cluttered the headlines over the past decade. Gated communities of dream homes, mansions ringed by man-made lakes and glass-cube office parks: These are the images typically evoked by the posh, supersized subdivisions built during the 1990s technology boom. Low-wage jobs, houses under foreclosure, families unable to afford food and medical care are not. But venture beyond the city limits of any major metropolitan area today, and you will encounter these things, in forms less concentrated — and therefore less visible — than in the more blighted pockets of our cities perhaps, but with growing frequency all the same.
In the three counties surrounding Greensboro, N.C., the city half an hour south of where Johnny Price lives, the poverty rate has surged in recent years. It now stands at 14.4 percent, only slightly below the level in New Orleans.
Greensboro, it turns out, is not alone. Last December the Brookings Institution published a report showing that, from Las Vegas to Boise to Houston, suburban poverty has been growing over the past seven years, in some places slowly, in others by as much as 33 percent. "The enduring social and fiscal challenges for cities that stem from high poverty are increasingly shared by their suburbs," the report concludes. It's a problem some may assume is confined to the ragged fringes of so-called "inner ring" suburbs that directly border cities, places where the housing stock is older and from which many wealthier residents long ago departed. But this isn't the case. "Overall...first suburbs did not bear the brunt of increasing suburban poverty in the early 2000s," notes the Brookings report, which found that economic distress has spread to "second-tier suburbs and 'exurbs'" as well.
The result is a historic milestone that has gone strangely ignored: For the first time ever, more poor Americans live in the suburbs than in all our cities combined.
One reason this shift may not have sunk into public consciousness is that for as long as suburbs have existed, Americans have tended to envision them as pristine sanctuaries where people go to escape brushing shoulders with the poor. The most familiar historical example — much lamented by a generation of progressives who came to associate the migration to suburbs with racial backlash and urban decline — is the mass exodus of middle-class white ethnics from the nation's central cities, which accelerated in the wake of the riots and social unrest of the 1960s. In more recent years, it's often assumed, the forces fueling the growth of suburbs have only made things worse — the social landscape more segregated, the sprawl more extreme, the gap increasingly vast between people who rarely set foot in cities and those who rarely leave them.
In fact, however, the gentrification of many urban neighborhoods, from Brooklyn to San Francisco to Washington, has forced many working-class residents out. In a reversal of the classic migration story, many of these displaced residents have fled to the suburbs, lured in part by the growing pool of mostly low-wage jobs there — cleaning homes, mowing lawns, staffing restaurants, strip malls and office plazas. Alan Berube, co-author of the Brookings Institution study, says the "decentralization of low-wage employment" is one of the main factors driving suburban poverty rates up.
In some counties, a lot of those jobs are falling to immigrants, who are increasingly heading straight to the suburbs rather than to cities in search of employment. In his 2004 book "On Paradise Drive," David Brooks presents a sunny portrait of the gorgeous mosaic that the influx of foreigners into formerly lily-white subdivisions has wrought. "Now you'll see little Taiwanese girls in the figure-skating clinics, Ukrainian boys learning to pitch," he writes.
What you'll also see are people like the day laborers who gather every morning in the parking lots of the Home Depots in Nassau County, Long Island, where the median family income is $87,558 and the overall poverty rate is fairly low, but where the demand for food stamps has increased by 40 percent since 2003. Although the median hourly wage for the roofing and construction jobs that day laborers land is $10 an hour, many don't see a penny of this: A study last year by researchers at UCLA found that nearly half experience wage theft.
A worker from Mexico I spoke with on a frigid day in February said he was owed $400 for some plumbing he'd done recently. Like most of the other men around him, he wore a hooded sweatshirt rather than a coat and cupped his fingers around his mouth to warm his bare hands, proper winter apparel evidently being an unaffordable luxury. Because the work is seasonal and sporadic, few day laborers earn more than $15,000 a year. More than half of those injured on the job don't receive the medical care they need.
Other immigrants on Long Island ply trades whose wages and hours call to mind certain features of urban sweatshops, save that the exploitation, like so much else in suburbia, is more hidden and dispersed. "We did a survey of domestic workers here and found that people were working seventy-hour weeks and getting, on average, $4.03 an hour," said Nadia Marin-Molina, director of an immigrants' rights organization called the Workplace Project, in Nassau County. Not long ago, three workers dropped by her office from a nearby restaurant to report they'd been getting $20 for twelve-hour shifts, well below the minimum wage even after factoring in tips. At a deli in the town center of Garden City, an affluent enclave of sprawling homes and fancy shops just down the road from the Workplace Project's modest headquarters, several others were fired simply for demanding to be paid on the books. Last year, the Workplace Project helped immigrants in Nassau County recuperate $143,849 in back wages, some from contractors who paid them with checks that bounced, others from companies like Popeyes and D'Angelo Pizzeria that didn't compensate them for overtime.
That landing a service job hardly guarantees earning an adequate income would not come as news to former factory workers in North Carolina. Johnny Price is currently enrolled in courses at Rockingham Community College, funded under the Trade Adjustment Act, in the hope of becoming an accountant. He told me there's no way he could keep up with his $700 mortgage payments and support his kids working as a clerk in a place like Wal-Mart, a major employer with two new stores in the area.