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  • Places in Need: The Changing Geography of Poverty by Scott W. Allard
  • Aaron Howell
Places in Need: The Changing Geography of Poverty
By Scott W. Allard
Russel Sage Foundation, 2017, 288 pages.

Scott Allard's Places in Need: The Changing Geography of Poverty is a must needed accounting of recent trends in the spatial location of and human service provision to the poor in the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas since 1990. Using an impressive array of data, including, to name a few the United States Census, the American Community Survey, the National Center for Charitable Statistics, and state Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) administrative files, Allard shows that poverty has shifted spatially and that the needs of this changing population are not being met in suburban locations with the highest increases in the poor population. This contribution alone merits a read from any scholar of neighborhoods, stratification, and/or poverty. In particular, Allard demonstrates the consequences the Great Recession had on poverty trends. Put simply, many neighborhoods are far from rebounding from the crisis, in fact neighborhood poverty conditions have worsened in many places and spread to suburban locations with little experience providing services for poor households.

Interestingly, safety net programs for the poor—like the Earned Income Tax Credit and SNAP—that have little to no local discretion in their distribution work best for the poor, while other programs with significant local discretion in their distribution are not keeping pace with rising suburban poverty. For example, Allard takes the reader to Lake County, in the Chicago metropolitan area. It has the feel of a typical middle to upper class suburban landscape, with its commuter rail lines, megachurches, and single family homes with attached garages. The iconic former Chicago Bull, Michael Jordan, famously owned a mansion in the county. But Lake County is not immune to the changing geography of poverty, however much the perception of it remains as an affluent place. Since 1990, the number of people living below the poverty line in Lake County increased by 150 percent and those in deep poverty, defined as people with income less than half the federal poverty line, has more than doubled. Allard demonstrates that in places like Lake County, those safety net programs with significant local control, such as TANF, continue to disproportionately target urban centers instead of suburban places in terms of expenditures, in contrast EITC and SNAP, with more federal regulation in the way they are distributed, reach poor families with no regard for spatial location. Allard's major point here is that when safety net dollars for the poor are more subject to local control, they may become more subjected to the conventional discourse on poverty, which assumes poverty to be an issue of the city, and therefore expenditures from these programs are city-targeted. In the case of Lake County, expenditures that could be used to set up and support a fairly young and emerging social service sector, more likely end up in Cook County, where a significantly large poor population resides, however, as Allard keenly notes, these are places that already have an infrastructure in place over many years, while in the suburbs of Lake County they are in essence just getting started building the type of costly infrastructure needed. Until the conventional spatial discourse on poverty is overcome, one should expect this same sort of materiality in social service expenditures from more locally controlled programs.

While these general types of trends may not be news to social scientists, Allard's most telling results lie in his interviews with and participant observation in local social service providers. Allard presents dispatches from Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington DC, with rich interview data and local insight from his time as a participant observer. These moments leave the reader wondering if the nation's suburbs are prepared to provide services for poor households. It is a complicated situation, where at times it seems blame lies in the ignorance to the new spatial location of poverty from service providers themselves, other times the challenge comes in raising enough funds to meet...


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