Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

15683 The Uneven Geography of Immigrant Settlement and Social Services: Spatial Mismatches In Suburban L.A., Chicago, and D.C

Sunday, January 15, 2012: 10:45 AM
Independence D (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Scott W. Allard, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Benjamin Roth, MSW, PhD Candidate, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background and Purpose

Poverty rates in suburban areas have been on the rise since 2000, leading to heightened demand for help from local nonprofit social service providers at a time when many providers are experiencing decreases in public and philanthropic funding. Furthermore, not all providers currently operating in hard-hit communities are best positioned to reach the people in need. This creates an uneven geography of opportunity across suburbia, exacerbating problems of access for a rapidly growing suburban demographic: new immigrants.

Indeed, there is evidence of spatial mismatches between the location of the suburban poor and social service providers (Allard, 2009), but many questions remain about the capacity of suburban nonprofit safety nets—particularly in areas where immigrants concentrate. This paper addresses three of these questions: (1) How do immigrant suburban settlement patterns correlate (or not) with the location of nonprofit service providers? (2) What is the capacity of the nonprofit safety net in these areas? (3) What challenges face immigrant-serving nonprofits in the suburbs?

Data and Methods

This paper focuses on the safety net in the suburbs of three metropolitan areas—Los Angeles, Chicago, and D.C.—and identifies how nonprofit social service providers are adapting to current economic and demographic shifts.

The paper uses data from a survey (conducted by the authors) of social service organizations in the suburbs of these three metropolitan areas. Using a purposive sampling design, the survey was conducted with directors of 77 organizations at four different time points from July 2009 to April 2010. These data provide unique insights into the nature of the suburban safety net and how social service organizations are managing the strain of growing demand in the wake of the recession. The paper also relies on IRS 990 data from the National Center of Charitable Statistics (NCCS) to provide a descriptive picture of suburban communities in each of the three metropolitan areas.


In keeping with research on poverty and the safety net in the suburbs, we find considerable variation in immigrant settlement patterns within and across the three suburban areas. The nonprofit safety net in these suburbs has very few immigrant-serving providers, although survey data suggest that many providers are adapting their services and delivery approach to better meet the needs of immigrant clientele. Organizations are burdened by capacity limitations due to budget cut backs and increased client demand. Not all organizations are affected equally, however, and some have capitalized on these conditions to actual expand operations.

Conclusions and Implications

This paper contributes to our understanding of suburban poverty, immigrant access to social services, and the volatility of this aspect of the safety net in suburbia. Specifically, as new immigrants increasingly settle in the suburbs, the nonprofit safety net is needed more than ever to deliver services that are accessible to the suburban poor. The implications of these findings are relevant to the local and regional policymakers and social work practitioners in suburbia.

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