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Would City Mergers Help Alleviate Suburban Poverty?

Economically struggling suburbs would benefit from joining with nearby cities, a think-tank report suggests.

Poverty in metropolitan areas has shot up in recent years, and, along with it, so has panic over suburban economic decline. A group of researchers is taking a page out of corporate America's playbook to call for an unusual remedy: mergers and acquisitions.

Suburban poverty has climbed over the past few decades, as Dwyer Gunn reported in June. Between 2000 and 2015, the growth in suburban poverty accounted for more than half of poverty expansion nationwide, one analysis found, though the rate remained higher overall in urban and rural areas. Still, thanks to population booms in the suburbs, the regions surrounding major United States cities have four million more Americans living below the poverty line than do the cities themselves, according to Scott Allard, a University of Washington professor and author of this year's Places in Need: The Changing Geography of Poverty. The stereotype of picket-fenced suburbs as havens from financial despair doesn't hold up.

But the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, released a report this week arguing that suburbs can return to their relatively well-off past—by crossing over from suburban to urban. In a brief titled "Mergers May Rescue Declining Suburbs," Aaron M. Renn advocates mergers into an adjacent larger city for 10 suburbs, including two options each outside Chicago, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. Noting that past merger attempts have been "fraught," Renn argues they are nonetheless needed: "As inner-ring suburbs become progressively poorer, they are less able to finance public services without tax increases, which drives away people and business, which further reduces the tax base."

Mergers would break this cycle, Renn writes, by connecting suburbs to existing municipal services that are more robust than what smaller communities can provide themselves. But, the report adds, "Mergers should improve services in the suburb but not at the expense of reducing them in the central city." Urban centers still have their own large populations to serve, often with rising needs: Falling wages for low-income mergers continue to drive poverty and income inequality in big cities across the country, Gunn reported.

City mergers tend to be the subject of discussion more than execution, as a recent Pew report detailed. One recent exception was the 2013 merger of New Jersey's smaller Princeton Borough into the Princeton Township (and neither qualifies as a major metropolis). For now, though, at least one of Renn's primary targets is unimpressed with the merger proposition. The 77-year-old mayor of Norwood, Ohio—which Renn recommended join with Cincinnati—told that a merger "is not going to happen" and shrugged off advice from the New York-based Manhattan Institute. "Any time you hear the word think tank, that should discourage you right there," he said. "Tell them to think on something else."