Will Suburban Poverty Dictate a St. Louis City-County Merger?

St. Louis County faces increasing challenges in the form of poverty, crime and disinvestment. It's not apparent to everyone of course. The County is home to the wealthiest suburbs in the metro area, the most prestigious private schools, country clubs, shopping, etc. Yet at some point in the future the County will be overwhelmed by the need for services and infrastructure. At that point, it will hope the region will pitch in to collectively address the challenge.

The issue isn't unique to St. Louis. The increase in suburban poverty has outpaced that of urban poverty for a decade or more. A study by the Brookings Institution found that in 2005 the poverty rate in large cities was 18.8% and that in suburban communities was 9.4%. A separate study found that between 2000 and 2008, suburbs in the nation's most populous metro areas saw a 25% increase in the number of individuals living in poverty, a rate nearly five times that of cities.

The trends make the emerging challenges clear enough, but the real crisis is only understood by considering the social service challenges in suburban areas. Non-profit agencies serving this community are fewer per capita than in urban areas and must serve a much larger geographic area. Place-based services require recipients to travel further, to spend more money traveling to the agency. A recent Brookings study has focused on this social service challenge.

The question is, at what point do County politicians and residents recognize the need for a more regional approach to address poverty (and infrastructure, and social services, and economic development, etc.)? What if that point is recognized after the need for services and support has switched to flow from the City to the County? And at that point does the City need the County?

The City continues to court some type of reunification with the County. They split in 1876. Today, County residents roundly reject any talk of a "merger" because they see it as the County assuming the burdens of the City, be it crime, homelessness, antiquated sewer system, etc. This equation will flip. The County is especially ill-prepared to confront this moment.