One of the surprisingly refreshing parts about being a church planter is found in leaving the environment of the seemingly “known” and being forced into a world of “unknown”. It’s refreshing to recognize how much we have to learn. It’s refreshing to get beyond our arrogance and pride and to be a learner again.
Not surprisingly, today I learned something new about the very people I hope to serve: The poor.
Although I’m aware of the common observable cultural shifts, I’ve remained pretty oblivious as to the depth of demographic impact by the gentrification of city-centers, and it’s impending influential waves. What I forgot to consider was the where, why, and how it impacts BEYOND the city-centers themselves.
Linda Bergquist, a New Church Starting Strategist in San Francisco and co-author of Church Turned Inside Out, wrote a recent post on the LifeWay Research Blog about the suburbanization of poverty. Here’s just a taste:
“The stereotypical suburban community is becoming extinct in the United States. Today, a million and a half more poor people live in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas than in the center cities. It would be easy to blame the change on the recession, or to ignore the facts by proclaiming that the recession will soon be over, but that would be negligent. By 2005, when the economy was prospering, there were already more poor people living in suburbs than in U.S. cities. In 1970, only 20.5% of America’s poor were suburbanites, and by 2000, the number increased to 35.9%. Between 2000 and 2008, the poor population in the suburbs of the nation’s 100 largest metro areas grew by 25%, almost five times faster than in the cities they surround. At the same time, the suburbs are also becoming much more ethnically diverse. Why the change? Here are a few theories:
a. Employment decentralization. Major employers in every sector have moved their bases of operation to the suburbs. Population sprawl followed job sprawl.
b. Immigration. Some new immigrants now select suburbs as their primary points of entry into the country because the jobs for which they are most qualified exist in suburbs rather than in city centers.
c. Gentrification. The status of status is changing, and the upper middle class is choosing high-rise city living over suburbia. There is a values shift from ownership (automobiles, large homes) to accessibility (public transportation, proximity to work, arts). As cities become more attractive to them, housing costs rise, thrusting the poor down into the streets and out into the suburbs.
d. Perceived cost of living. Sometimes poor people move to suburbs because it seems more affordable. However, while housing costs are less, there are hidden expenses, such as car ownership and less access to human services.
e. High unemployment rates. Certainly the recession economy is a factor. It has not brought the poor to the suburbs, but it is the reason why many middle class people are suddenly poor and in need of assistance.
The most challenging aspect of poverty’s suburbanization is that it has caught social sectors by surprise. Governments, nonprofits, schools, healthcare systems and churches lack the infrastructures to help the way they do in the cities. Funding agencies are prepared to help the “urban poor” but have no mental category for the suburban poor. Money and volunteers flow inward to the city cores. Many nonprofits have lost the grants they need to provide wages for employees, yet have long lists of newly poor who need their services. Suburban schools are also unprepared for new kinds of students who enter the system from non-English speaking or reading impoverished backgrounds. Health care providers are serving new constituencies that lack insurance. Likewise, some suburban churches are facing membership declines and their congregations can no longer help fund programs. They seek causes, but are often unaware of shifts in their communities.
In the face of radical change, it would be humanly understandable for suburban Christians to assume a defensive posture. However, for such a time as this, the church is being called to a proactively biblical, missional and ethical response. To begin with, most Christians are aware of God’s commands to care for the poor (e.g. Proverbs 17:5, 21:13, 28: 27; Ezekiel 16:49; Mt 19:21, 25: 31ff), but in the suburbs poverty is less dense and therefore less visible. God not only demands giving to hoards of visible poor, but to any one with need “If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother…therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land (Deuteronomy 15:7, 11).”
You can read the rest of the post as well as some pretty insightful comments and dialogue HERE.