Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Suburban Immigrants, Suburban Poverty, and Suburban Safety Nets

Friday, November 13, 2015 : 8:30 AM
Stanford (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Benjamin J. Roth, University of South Carolina and Scott Allard, University of Washington
The geography of immigration and poverty has shifted in metropolitan America over the past few decades. Today, there are more poor people living in the suburbs of our largest metro areas than in the central cities, with poverty rates growing faster in suburbs versus cities. The flow of recent immigrants to suburbs – many who work in low-wage jobs - also has increased over the last few decades. Suburbs are a more common first-destination for immigrants than at any time in American history.

In this paper, we focus on how rising poverty and numbers of low-wage immigrants in suburban communities creates challenges for suburban safety nets. Complex legal restrictions reduce the likelihood that low-income immigrants receive assistance from most public cash and in-kind assistance programs. Because fewer legal restrictions govern social service programs, we might expect social services that address basic material need, adult education needs, and other barriers to well-being to be particularly important to low-income immigrants. Yet, suburban immigrants may encounter other obstacles to accessing social services, such as spatial mismatch, limited staff cultural or language competency, or community-level anti-immigrant sentiment.

We explore several questions related to immigrant communities and the provision of social service assistance in suburbs: What are the characteristics of social service organizations that serve immigrant populations, and how do these characteristics vary by urban or suburban location? How does access to different types of social service providers vary across urban versus suburban communities and counties? What are the operational challenges that prevent organizations from reaching immigrant communities?

To answer these questions, we draw on three unique sources of data. First, we draw upon the Multi-City Survey of Social Service Providers (MSSSP) to examine the characteristics of providers working with immigrants in metropolitan Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington DC. Second, we examine county-level data on nonprofit social service revenues and expenditures from 2000 to 2010. Third, we draw upon information from in-depth interviews and follow-up web surveys conducted with 100 suburban social service providers in the wake of the Great Recession.

We find organizations providing basic assistance and those located in neighborhoods with high percentages of immigrant residents are more likely to serve immigrant populations. Next, we find counties with larger increases in poverty and immigrant populations are no more likely to see growth in the nonprofit social service sector than counties where poverty and the immigrant population haven’t increased as much. Finally, we find organizations are wary about their work to engage immigrants and service delivery strategies closely track to perceived hostility to immigrants in the community.

Our findings provide a view of the nonprofit safety net in select suburban places that are now home to an increasing share of America’s poor, and answers to these questions will help suburban social service providers and suburban community leaders identify solutions that may improve the effectiveness and efficiency of local safety net programs. We also believe our findings provide an important starting point for continued research in this area.