A Philadelphia family of four must make more than $70,000 a year just to survive, a new report says — a stunning sum beyond the reach of most residents in a city beset by high poverty and meager chances.

According to the newly released study based on 2019 data, two adults with one preschooler and one school-age child have to take in $70,613 to meet their needs without receiving public assistance or help from relatives or friends.

In a city household consisting of one parent and two children trying to afford bare necessities — including food, shelter, health care, and child care — the adult has to make at least $65,122 to subsist without aid, according to the report, part of the so-called Self-Sufficiency Standard compiled for 41 states by the University of Washington-Seattle.

Meanwhile, in the Pennsylvania suburban counties, a family of four requires an annual income ranging from a low of about $80,000 to a high of almost $88,000, the study found.

In Philadelphia, it appears that the majority of households don’t make enough money to cover basic costs. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 60% of city households — nearly 365,000 out of a total of 608,000 — take in less than $60,000 a year. About 70% earn less than $75,000. The median household income in Philadelphia is just above $46,000 a year, compared with the national median of about $63,000.

People are losing ground despite their best efforts. According to the report, 79% of Pennsylvania households whose incomes fall below the Self-Sufficiency Standard have at least one person working. The data exclude the elderly and disabled.

“It’s very depressing to live this way,” said Debra Colbert, 47, a married mother of three children aged 12, 15, and 16 who says her Hunting Park family struggles financially. She works part time as a grocery shopper; her husband is a truck driver. According to the report, the Colberts would need to make $87,226 a year to sustain themselves — which they don’t.

“You work so hard and you’re never just content to know that the bills are paid, the gas tank is full, and the refrigerator is stocked,” said Colbert, who declined to disclose her family income. “There’s always something not getting paid. My 16-year-old is going to junior prom in May. How much will it be? I don’t even know yet.

"It weighs on my mind. You never exhale.”

Debra Colbert, 47, of Hunting Park, works part time, while her husband works full time as a truck driver. Despite their efforts, the couple – who have three children – have a hard time making ends meet.
Debra Colbert
Debra Colbert, 47, of Hunting Park, works part time, while her husband works full time as a truck driver. Despite their efforts, the couple – who have three children – have a hard time making ends meet.

Surviving the suburbs

To survive without help in the Pennsylvania suburbs, according to the Self-Sufficiency Standard, a household of two adults, a preschooler, and a school-age child would have to take in $82,792 annually in Bucks County, $87,897 in Chester County, $79,861 in Delaware County, and $86,047 in Montgomery County.

“The $86,000 in Montgomery County sounds like a lot,” said Britt Peterson, food resource director for Manna on Main Street, a food bank and family-assistance center in Lansdale. "But it’s expensive to live out here.

“A lot of our clients work two jobs, but even that may not be enough because their pay isn’t enough to sustain a family. And if one little thing, like a flat tire, goes wrong, it puts the family into distress.”

So many workers are looking for help wherever they can get it just to survive, noted John Caskey, an economics professor at Swarthmore College. “They use grandparents or extended family for child care,” he said. “They move to find cheaper rent. Something’s got to give. People are out there making compromises.”

Struggling while not in poverty

At a time when the economy is said to be booming, the report makes clear that not everyone is sharing in the good fortune.

Across Pennsylvania, one in four households — more than 846,000 — lacks enough income to afford necessities, according to an analysis of the Self-Sufficiency Standard report, “Overlooked & Undercounted 2019: Struggling to Make Ends Meet in Pennsylvania.” PathWays PA, a policy and advocacy group for families and children in Folsom, Delaware County, contracted with the University of Washington to create the report for Pennsylvania.

Of those 846,000 households, about 338,000 are officially designated as poor, according to the report. So the majority of struggling households are not below the poverty line.

About 140,000 Philadelphia households are below the federal poverty line, which is about $26,000 annually for a family of four.

The Self-Sufficiency Standard, last calculated in 2012, is considered more accurate and detailed than the federal poverty level, the traditional gauge of how much money a family needs to live. The federal poverty level has long been criticized for failing to take a full measure of the costs of living.

“The Standard is a good reminder that, just because people aren’t on welfare, it doesn’t mean they’re not struggling,” said Laura Napolitano, a sociologist at Rutgers University-Camden. “We’re just not counting them as we count those in poverty.”

Sociologist Judith Levine, director of the Public Policy Lab at Temple University, agreed: “There’s a whole group of people above the poverty line we should be concerned about. We’re not talking about folks having enough money to take European vacations. It’s so they can have child care so they can go to work.”

Close to catastrophe

In America, those in poverty are demonized as “lazy, fat drunks who can’t get a job, which has never been true,” said St. Joseph’s University sociologist Maria Kefalas.

But, she added, the Standard shows that a lot more people than those officially classified as living in poverty are in trouble these days, however well the stock market is performing.

“I don’t think the middle class knows how close they are to catastrophe,” said Kefalas, an expert on poverty. “The biggest vulnerability Americans have is health care.” The Standard shows that a family of four in Philadelphia would have to pay nearly $1,800 a month for minimal medical coverage.

“In this economy, if you’re a hedge-fund guy, you’re doing OK," Kefalas added. "But the reality is that many people are suffering from wage stagnation. Overwhelmingly, young families with children are so close to the edge — to homelessness, to bankruptcy. It speaks to the despair we see in people taking opioids, and in the suicide epidemic.”

And circumstances aren’t improving, despite low unemployment. The cost of the basic needs for a Philadelphia family shot up 31% between 2010 and 2019, while income increased only 17% during that period, according to Marianne Bellesorte, vice president of advocacy at PathWays PA.

“People are working, but not making a self-sufficient wage,” she said.

Despite the economic obstacles, it’s important to remember that there’s a never-ending spirit among residents to keep trying for their families, said Denise Anderson, 33. She, her husband, Dan, and their 9-month-old son live in Fairhill as part of Servant Partners, an international Christian-based organization dedicated to helping those with less. Denise is a community organizer; Dan runs a welding job-training program.

“Making $70,000 in a neighborhood where the median income is $15,000 is completely unrealistic,” she said of the Self-Sufficiency Standard. "We make less than 70 but don’t qualify for any benefits.

“Still, people out here want to provide for their families. No one ever stops trying."