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Economic Justice

Rethinking Suburbia

Paul Hunter, Head of Research at the Smith Institute,  discusses the changing face of suburbia and the findings of a new report ‘Poverty in Suburbia’

From Abigail’s Party to Keeping Up Appearances, suburbia has long been synonymous with relative comfort and cheery affluence. Yet the stereotype of suburbs as places inhabited solely by the upwardly mobile middle classes belies the number of those in poverty who live on the edges of our cities and towns. Indeed, as our new report, Poverty in Suburbia, demonstrates, an increasing number of people  in suburbs are now living in poverty.  There are approximately 6.8 million people in poverty in the suburbs of England and Wales – or put another way – 57% of those in poverty live in the suburbs.


To date tracking poverty in suburbs has not taken place. There have been occasional interventions, such as Boris Johnson arguing that welfare reform would result in a social cleansing of inner London and a flight to the suburbs, as well as growing interest in the issue from the US – but there have been few studies in the UK. Indeed, there are no official statistics on suburbia.


To help fill this information gap we used a range of indicators to map poverty and evaluate which ‘at risk’ groups are most common in suburbs. We looked in detail at incidences of poverty in eight major cities and found that there are significant socio-economic trends in the suburbs which have been largely ignored and which may worsen with continued budget cuts and pressure/reductions in services. For example, of those at risk of poverty there were higher concentrations of lone parents, part-time workers, people with a disability, and pension credit recipients in the suburbs than the rest of the country.


What is more many of the risk factors appear to be increasing in suburbs and the number of suburban neighbourhoods with above average levels of poverty has risen by 33% over the last decade. In addition, more people per head are on benefits (pension credit, job seeker’s allowance, income support and disability living allowance) in the suburbs than the rest of the country. And the claimant rates have increased more per head (or decreased less) in the suburbs since the recession.


These findings suggest the need for a greater focus on the suburbs by government (both local and central), policy makers and anti-poverty campaigners. This is even more of an imperative given that higher housing costs and a lack of affordable housing in inner cities is thought to be forcing poorer tenants out to the suburbs. This phenomena, combined with predicted rises in child poverty rates, could mean that poverty becomes even more prevalent in suburbia.


Poverty in suburbia has been ignored for too long. With a majority of people in poverty living in suburbs there needs to be a much better understanding of the issue. Many suburban areas have been badly affected by reductions in local authority and central government spending.


Suburbs may not be looked upon with great affection by some, yet they remain places where people want to live.  It is important to ensure that what attracted people to suburbia in the first place is not eroded.  This is not to say suburbs should be only for the relatively wealthy, but rather that particular suburbs most in need of support should not be overlooked.  This requires not only renewal and investment in the built environment but also greater understanding of the resilience of their local economies and social infrastructure.  We need to reimagine how we view suburbia and rethink how we support poorer suburbs.  Failure to do so risks overlooking the majority of people in poverty.