The middle-class American dream, which resided for more than half a century in leafy suburban enclaves such as Mountain View, Lafayette and Antioch -- homogeneous bulwarks built by GI loans and fortified by white flight -- has given way to an alarming rise in suburban poverty over the past decade, according to a study by the Brookings Institution scheduled for release Monday.
While the poor are with us everywhere in greater numbers than ever before, the authors of "Confronting Suburban Poverty in America" conclude that the Bay Area's two largest metropolitan areas have experienced the spread of this scourge in starkly different ways.
The percentage of people living in poverty in the suburbs rose 56.1 percent in the San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont metro area from 2000 to 2011, compared to 64 percent nationwide. The San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara metropolitan region surged 53.1 percent. But Silicon Valley experienced a corresponding rise (49 percent) among its urban poor, while in San Francisco, inner-city poverty increased by only 18.4 percent.
"We have a way of dealing with poverty in America that is about five decades old," says Alan Berube, the book's co-author -- along with Elizabeth Kneebone -- and Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program Senior Fellow. "And it's built for where poverty was then: primarily in inner cities. The way the programs are structured and delivered really doesn't compute for a lot of suburbia and the increasing number of low-income people who are living there."
Suburban life, which became a fixture of American postwar mythologizing, reached its apex with the release of "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," Steven Spielberg's 1982 film about of life in cookie-cutter tract housing. According to the Brookings study, however, poverty during the past decade grew twice as fast in the suburbs as cities. By 2011, 3 million more poor people lived in suburbs of the nation's major metropolitan areas than in its big cities.
The book actually opens with a description of the suburbs of East Contra Costa County -- places such as Oakley, Antioch and Brentwood -- where the number of people living below the poverty line grew by more than 70 percent in the past decade. Berube says the high cost of living in San Francisco simply pushed the urban poor who bus restaurant tables and drive cabs into a kind of blight flight.
"Try living somewhere in the city of San Francisco on $20,000 a year for a family of four," Berube says. "A lot of families saw an opportunity to live in a safer community, and in a better housing unit, way out in East Contra Costa County. It was a very rational decision in response to a shrinking supply of affordable housing, but I don't think we thought about what would be the consequences for those families when they got there."
In the South Bay and on the Peninsula, where suburbia consists of expensive bedroom communities such as Cupertino and Menlo Park, there were fewer places for the poor to turn, and many have stayed close to San Jose's dowdy downtown. That's where nonprofit agencies remain entrenched, and public transportation provides mobility for the poorest.
"Suburbs have long seen it in their self-interest to deny that there's a problem," Berube says. "Because the minute they acknowledge it, then they have to do something about it. So there's a lack of political will to do what's needed to help families who are beset by these major economic challenges in suburbia."
Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004. Follow him at Twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit.