Poverty rises in Phila., suburbs, census study finds

Posted: September 21, 2012

Poverty rose significantly in Philadelphia and its surrounding counties over the last two years, while the city's median household income in 2011 ranked second-worst among the nation's 25 largest cities.

The findings were released Thursday in the American Community Survey One-Year Estimate, an annual sampling of three million people conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. The report has a higher margin of error than the census, which is a separate undertaking.

"These are very bleak and disconcerting statistics," said Mark Zandi, chief economist with Moody's Analytics, the economic-consulting firm in West Chester. "And the real median income is even lower than the Census Bureau suggests because the cost of living in Philadelphia is so high."

From 2010 to 2011, Philadelphia's poverty rate jumped from 26.7 percent to 28.4 percent.

Nearly 40 percent of city children were living in poverty in 2011, a rise of three percentage points from 2010, according to the report.

And Philadelphia's median household income in 2011 was $34,207, $16,000 less than the national figure of $50,502, census figures show. Of the top 25 American cities, only Detroit had a lower median annual income, at $25,193. In 2010, Philadelphia's median household income was $34,400.

Poverty levels increased from 2010 to 2011 in each of the counties surrounding Philadelphia, with Camden County recording the greatest jump, from 12.4 percent to 13.5 percent.

The highest poverty rate in the Pennsylvania suburbs was 9.9 percent in Delaware County.

The overall poverty rate for Pennsylvania rose from 13.4 percent in 2010 to 13.8 percent in 2011, compared with the national rate of 15.9 percent.

In New Jersey, poverty rates barely budged from 2010 to 2011, from 10.3 percent to 10.4 percent.

Even as the national economy begins to recover, unemployment, along with employment in low-wage jobs, still plagues this region, accounting for high poverty and low median incomes, economists say.

Minimum-wage jobs are a huge problem, experts say, noting that in 70 percent of the U.S. families that don't have enough to eat, there is at least one person working.

Locally, the census findings that worry antipoverty advocates most are the high rates of children's poverty. In Philadelphia, one in two children receives food from a food pantry, according to the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.

Referencing the census report, Carey Morgan, executive director of the coalition, said, "Forty percent of kids in poverty is really appalling. It's against American values.

"Kids in poverty will not be able to learn, will get sick more often, and will grow up unproductive. As taxpayers, we'll pay the price."

Mariana Chilton, an expert on children's hunger with Drexel University's School of Public Health, said, "Poverty scars the brain and the potential for little kids. It will reverberate for generations. How loud do we have to scream to get government and business to hear?"

The pain is quite familiar to Fernando Carlos, 43, an unemployed holder of an MBA living with his wife and 2-year-old daughter in Northeast Philadelphia.

After working for nearly 20 years in human resources at telecommunications and technology companies in California, Carlos was laid off. His house was foreclosed on, and with his savings dwindling, he moved to Philadelphia with his family six months ago.

"When I was a kid growing up in Brazil, I watched Rocky movies," he said. "It's stupid, but the movies made me want to live in Philadelphia."

But there's been no rags-to-riches tale here. Carlos said he had put out 1,000 resum├ęs but cannot find an executive job. His wife does not speak English and stays home with the children.

Recently, Carlos was working for a moving company that did not offer insurance and injured himself falling off a truck, leaving him without a job and choked with bills. The family gets $375 a month in food stamps and a little help from Brazilian relatives. But Carlos said he feels the walls closing in.

"I have to buy clothes for my daughter," he said. "Brazilian men take care of their families, and I won't make mine homeless. But I don't know what to do. It's hard for people to understand there still are no jobs."

Carlos clearly isn't alone in having to worrying about his family. In Gloucester County, the number of children under 18 in poverty jumped 57.8 percent in 2011 over 2010, census figures show - the largest increase in the area.

New Jersey poverty experts believe that's a result of unemployment and partly because poor families are moving out of Camden into Gloucester towns in hope of a better life.

The trend is alarming, yet few in government bring it up, experts say.

"The number of poor children in Gloucester County is something people need to pay attention to," said Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition in Trenton. "And it's bizarre that two men are running for president, yet they never discuss poverty. It speaks to people being out of touch with the reality of increasing poverty."

At the same time, the largest percentage change in overall poverty in the Pennsylvania suburbs in 2011 was in Montgomery County.

That's part of a 12-year trend of people moving to the suburbs from Philadelphia for better opportunities, said Patrick Druhan, a director with the county's Community Action Development Commission.

"We're in hard times with people reaching the end of their ropes," Druhan said. He added that he's worried that Congress will cut too much from the food stamp budget (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) in the coming months, making a bad situation potentially catastrophic.

"We're just on this slide downward," Druhan said.

Most of the counties in the region registered increases in the percentage of households receiving SNAP benefits, the largest (up 3.1 percentage points) in Camden County, census figures show.

In Philadelphia, 144,000 households were receiving SNAP benefits in 2011, census numbers showed. Currently, there are 223,000 households receiving SNAP in the city, according to coalition figures.

Along with high poverty in the region, there are very wealthy people here as well, making for a "wide disparity between the haves and have-nots," Zandi said.

To improve conditions, he added, "the focus should be on trying to educate the population. That's the key to getting out of poverty."

But, he said, "it will take generations to fix."


Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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