Poverty Comes to Denver's Suburbs

Poverty Comes to Denver's Suburbs
Thinkstock file photo
According to a new study, the number of high-poverty neighborhoods in the Denver metro area nearly tripled over a fifteen-year period, partly as a result of high housing costs. In addition, poverty is increasing more quickly in the suburbs than in the city itself.

"Poverty in the Suburbs: Are Cities Prepared to Deal With the Growing Problem?," a new report from, looks at this issue from a national perspective. The site analyzed national and metro-level data from the Joint Center on Housing Studies at Harvard University. It showed that while poverty in general has increased from 11.3 percent in 2000 to 13.5 percent in 2015 (the peak of 15.1 percent struck in 2010, during the Great Recession), the suburban rate outpaced the urban one.

This so-called suburbanization of poverty is seen clearly in and around the Mile High City, as illustrated in Denver-centric information provided by Andrew Woo, ApartmentList's director of data science.

The following graphic shows the number of Denver neighborhoods with a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher — the threshold established by Harvard researchers — in both 2000 and 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

As you can see, high-poverty neighborhoods described as "Dense Urban" — areas most often found in the city itself — rose from 32 to 77, or just over 140 percent.

However, "Medium Dense Urban" neighborhoods of the sort that characterize many suburbs went from eleven to 28, up more than 154 percent, and "Least Dense Urban," a designation that's almost exclusively suburban in nature, jumped from one to six, a 500 percent boost.

The share of high-poverty neighborhoods has shifted, too, with those deemed "Dense Urban" representing about a 3 percent smaller slice of the pie in 2015 than in 2000 — with a corresponding poverty increase in suburban-type areas.

Woo offers more information about rising poverty in Denver suburbs throughout the following Q&A, conducted via e-mail. As you'll see, he says that despite the booming economy here, poverty in Denver exceeds the national average.

Westword: The Harvard study cited in your report shows that poverty has increased in many metropolitan areas classified as low-density, medium-density and high-density, as well as rural areas outside metros. How do you define each one of these classifications?

Andrew Woo: Metro-area tracts are ranked by housing density and sorted into thirds, so the high-density tracts are the top 1/3 most dense within the metro. Rural areas are any areas outside metropolitan areas.

Are the results similar in the Denver metro area?

The Denver metro area saw a significant spike in the number of high-poverty areas from 2000 to 2015, from 44 to 111. Most of these high-poverty areas continue to be in high-density tracts, but the growth in the number of suburban high-poverty areas was faster than in high-density areas.

Overall, the trend is pretty consistent: High-density poverty still accounts for the largest part of Denver metro poverty, although poverty has been migrating to the suburbs over time.

click to enlarge PHOTOS BY SCOTT RUSSELL
Photos by Scott Russell
Your report notes that the number of high-poverty neighborhoods in the Denver metro area nearly tripled — but I understand that the unit of measurement you used involved census tracts. Can you describe what a census tract is and how the measurements were applied to neighborhoods?

The official definition is here. Basically it's an area of around 4,000 people that is intended to be relatively homogeneous, like a neighborhood.

How does Denver compare to other cities on a national level when it comes to the rising number of high-poverty neighborhoods?

Poverty has increased more quickly in Denver than elsewhere. Nationwide, there was a 59 percent increase in the number of high-poverty neighborhoods, but Denver saw a 152 percent increase.

In what types of neighborhoods in the Denver metro areas have the poverty levels increased the most?

Denver has seen some poverty spread to the suburbs, but overall, poverty in Denver is still largely concentrated in high-density areas. In 2015, 77 out of 111 high-poverty areas in the Denver metro were in high-density areas.

Denver statistics show that dense urban neighborhoods in Denver with more than 20 percent poverty have more than doubled, as have medium-dense urban neighborhoods — and less-dense urban neighborhoods that meet this standard have gone from one to six. What are the major factors in these shifts?

Housing costs in Denver have spiked in recent years, driven by wage and employment growth, coupled with insufficient supply. Our study suggests that there is group of people in Denver that have been left behind.

At the same time, the share of dense urban neighborhoods in metro Denver has actually declined during that period, from more than 72 percent of the total to around 69 percent. Does this suggest that people dealing with poverty are trying to improve their lot by moving, but they're having difficulty achieving this goal in their new location?

Poverty is growing in high-, medium-, and low-density areas of the Denver metro (all of them), but since there were fewer poor suburban neighborhoods in 2000, the rate of increase there was higher. Overall, poverty in Denver is still primarily an urban phenomenon, although it is starting to spread. I think it is a combination of factors that are causing the increased suburban poverty: people who are priced out of urban areas and moving to the suburbs, as well as people in the suburbs who are affected by rising housing costs.

click to enlarge THINKSTOCK FILE PHOTO
Thinkstock file photo
We often think of suburbs as being more affluent than areas within city limits, but that's not always the case. Are there examples of this phenomenon in the Denver metro area — suburbs that have more poverty than many parts of Denver proper?

Unfortunately, we weren't able to break out data for specific suburbs to give examples. With 34 medium and low-density suburbs with high poverty, however, there are definitely suburbs that have higher poverty than parts of Denver proper.

Are high-poverty areas in areas with a high-income demographic somewhat hidden from public view, given that the communities as a whole have a reputation for affluence?

I think the issue here is more that suburban poverty (which is increasing) is more "hidden" than urban poverty. It's less visible simply because there are fewer people (and reporters) living or working there. It's a challenge because those areas also tend to have poorer infrastructure (e.g., public transport networks) and social services. Suburban cities will have to adapt to deal with these challenges.

Are there suburban areas in Denver in which the majority of the residents are dealing with poverty?

Harvard defined high-poverty neighborhoods as those with at least 20 percent of residents living below the poverty line. We don't have data on areas with a majority of residents dealing with poverty (>50 percent), but I think those would be relatively few in number.

What are ways that suburbs can begin to grapple with this issue and, with luck, make progress on it?

I think it starts with recognition of the issue. Beyond that, suburbs will need to continue to attract good jobs and build out infrastructure and services to help the poor — public transportation, career services, etc.

Is there anything else important about this subject that I neglected to ask about but you feel is important to add?

Overall, Denver's economy and labor market have been very strong, but there are challenges associated with that growth as well. Our report shines a spotlight on some of the issues that Denver and its surrounding suburbs will have to tackle in the coming years.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts