There is a familiar narrative about American suburbs: after 1945, white residents left cities for leafy, affluent subdivisions and the prosperity they seemed to embody. In Levittown’s Shadow: Poverty in America’s Wealthiest Postwar Suburb (University of Chicago Press, 2023) tells us there’s more to this story, offering an eye-opening account of diverse, poor residents living and working in those same neighborhoods.
This week on the Historians Podcast, Tim Keogh talks about his book.
Author Tim Keogh shows how public policies produced both suburban plenty and deprivation — and why ignoring suburban poverty doomed efforts to reduce inequality.
Keogh focuses on the suburbs of Long Island, home to Levittown, often considered the archetypal suburb. Here military contracts subsidized well-paid employment welding airplanes or filing paperwork, while weak labor laws impoverished suburbanites who mowed lawns, built houses, scrubbed kitchen floors, and stocked supermarket shelves.
Federal mortgage programs helped some families buy orderly single-family homes and enter the middle class but also underwrote landlord efforts to cram poor families into suburban attics, basements, and sheds.
Keogh explores how policymakers ignored suburban inequality, addressing housing segregation between cities and suburbs rather than suburbanites’ demands for decent jobs, housing, and schools.
By turning our attention to the suburban poor, Keogh reveals poverty wasn’t just an urban problem but a suburban one, too. In Levittown’s Shadow deepens our understanding of suburbia’s history—and points us toward more effective ways to combat poverty today.
Keogh is a history professor at Queensborough Community College of City University of New York.
The Historians Podcast has been online weekly since 2014 produced by Bob Cudmore and Dave Greene. You will find many of our 501 podcasts archived at bobcudmore.com.
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