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The Symbolic Dilemmas of Suburban Poverty: Challenges and Opportunities Posed by Variations in the Contours of Suburban Poverty1


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    Thank you to John R. Logan, the editor of Sociological Forum, and my two anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments and critiques. Thank you to Katherine Newman and Sara McLanahan for their guidance, advice, and extensive feedback. This article benefited greatly from comments and critiques made by students in the Princeton University Joint Degree Program in Social Policy. Thank you also to Carol Ann MacGregor, Danny Schneider, Rebecca Casciano, and Trevor Gardner for reading earlier drafts of the article, and to Aaron Chiu, Steven Brown, Kivan Polimis, and Hamil Pearsall for their research assistance. Finally, thank you to the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, Princeton University, and the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations for their support.


Poverty has increased significantly in U.S. suburbs since the 1990s. What we know about suburban poverty is largely limited to demographic and economic information. Building off the organizational perspective approach, I use in-depth interviews with nonprofit, antipoverty organizations in eight Pennsylvania suburbs to better understand the suburban poverty experience. My focus is on how organizations compete for external resources. By working directly with the poverty problem while also working in broader metropolitan political and economic fields of decision making, this “middleman” role (Marwell, 2007) gives us insights into contemporary poverty dynamics for suburbs. I find that how suburban organizational leaders perceive the challenges they face, and what strategies they adopt to confront such difficulties, revolves around symbolic dilemmas posed by the history, distribution, and politics of poverty in the suburbs. Symbolic dilemmas cluster around three different situational contexts of poverty in the suburbs. I use this to develop a three-part typology of suburban poverty: symbiotic suburbs, skeletal suburbs, and overshadowed suburbs. This typology has implications for future research and for policymakers interested in developing tools to appropriately address this pressing issue.