Philadelphia Inquirer, August 29, 2007: Phila., Camden among poorest places; suburbs richest

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By Larry Eichel

Inquirer Senior Writer

The national poverty rate fell slightly last year, its first decline in a decade, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures released yesterday.

Yet while the median household income rose, it remained below 1999 levels in terms of buying power, and real wages fell for a third straight year.

“I’m putting in longer and longer hours, and I’m looking for a second part-time job,” said Donna Waldemarra, 44, of Newtonville, N.J., who works as a receptionist at a car dealership. “It’s very tight. And it’s even tighter because I’m caring for my two parents.”

Locally, Philadelphia and Camden still have some of the nation’s highest poverty rates – and nearby counties some of the lowest.

According to the census data, 25.1 percent of Philadelphians lived in poverty last year. That figure, essentially unchanged from 2005, is ninth-worst among cities with populations of 250,000 or more. Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, El Paso, Miami, Milwaukee and St. Louis have higher percentages of poor residents.

And Philadelphia continues to have the highest poverty rate of the nation’s 10 largest cities.

The economic well-being of its citizens has a direct impact on the city’s crime rate, Democratic mayoral candidate Michael Nutter said yesterday. Poverty can be addressed only by focusing on education, economic development, and jobs for prisoners reentering society, he said.

Until then, Nutter said, “we’re going to continue to have this poverty condition be one of the main stories of this city.”

Republican candidate Al Taubenberger said that one answer was for a mayor to serve as “the city’s chief salesman” in attracting jobs.

Camden, with 35.6 percent of residents living in poverty, had the third-highest rate for cities with populations between 65,000 and 250,000, trailing Brownsville and College Station, both in Texas.

In contrast, Bucks County’s 4.6 percent poverty rate was one of the lowest in the country. Only seven of the nation’s largest counties (those with populations of 250,000 and up) had a lower number.

Other area counties with very low poverty include Montgomery County at 5.7 percent and Burlington County at 5.9 percent.

The region’s economic differences were vividly reflected in median household income as well.

Among the 783 counties surveyed, Philadelphia ranked 750th on the income scale, with a median of $33,229.

By contrast, Chester County had a median household income of $77,570. Also faring well were Montgomery, at $71,180; Bucks, at $70,406; Burlington, at $68,090; and Gloucester, at $66,759.

New Jersey ranked second nationally in median household income, trailing Maryland, while Pennsylvania came in 26th, a few hundred dollars below the national median of $48,200.

Both New Jersey and Pennsylvania have poverty numbers below the national rate of 13.3 percent. New Jersey’s is 8.7 percent, Pennsylvania’s 12.1.

The new local data come from the American Community Survey, an annual look at economic and demographic trends for U.S. cities and counties with at least 65,000 residents.

Results from that survey, along with the national Current Population Survey, were published yesterday by the Census Bureau.

According to the latter report, the overall poverty rate in the United States declined from 12.6 percent in 2005 to 12.3 percent in 2006, its lowest in four years. Hispanics saw the biggest decline – down 1.2 percentage points, to 20.6 percent.

An estimated 36.5 million Americans live in poverty, currently defined as an annual income of less than $20,444 for a family of four.

The national poverty rate for senior citizens continued its years-long decline, according to the census. It now stands at 9.4 percent, the lowest figure ever recorded, down from 35.2 percent in 1960.

The poverty rate was 17.4 percent for children and 10.8 percent for adults between ages 18 and 64.

In Philadelphia, however, the incidence of poverty was roughly double the national rates in all three age categories – 35.3 percent for children, 22 percent for adults, and 19.5 percent for seniors.

Nationally, median annual household income rose 0.7 percent in 2006, leaving it still well below the peak levels of 1999, when median income was the equivalent of $49,244.

Earnings for workers – again adjusted for inflation – fell by about 1 percent, marking the third consecutive year in which they had gone down.

“Sadly, far too many working families are strangled by a web of bills, struggling to pay their mortgages, health insurance, child care, food costs, and rising utility and gas prices,” said John Wilson, executive director of the Community Action Association of Pennsylvania.

Household incomes can rise while wages fall when more members of households are working, said David Johnson, the census chief for housing and household economic statistics. Or they’re working more jobs.

Robin Finkelstein, a Philadelphia public school teacher, understands that well.

To help put three daughters through college, she’s taken on a second job teaching religious classes. Her husband, in addition to working as a lawyer, teaches night classes at a community college.

“College costs more and more, and gas is going up, too,” said Finkelstein, 49, a Cherry Hill resident. For all their extra work, she added, she and her husband don’t feel any better off.

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