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Poverty in Philadelphia dipped in 2019, while income edged up slightly, before the coronavirus rearranged our lives

Chester County was the only local county to exceed a $100,000 median household income in 2019, according to a Census report released Thursday.

Carmen Lassus, a volunteer at The Center for Returning Citizens Community Healing Center, helps hand out food to people in the community along Broad Street in North Philadelphia in July.
Carmen Lassus, a volunteer at The Center for Returning Citizens Community Healing Center, helps hand out food to people in the community along Broad Street in North Philadelphia in July.Read moreTyger Williams / File Photograph

Philadelphia’s poverty rate fell and its median household income increased in 2019 — economic developments both hailed for moving the city in the right direction, and dismissed as now irrelevant in the age of COVID-19.

Riding the decade-long economic recovery from the Great Recession, the city and surrounding region were making progress until the coronavirus rerouted so many of the up arrows on financial graphs.

“The pandemic has done massive financial destruction, particularly to lower-income groups,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics in West Chester. “This was the best economy in 50 years, with low unemployment — good enough for all boats to be lifted. Then we got nailed, and it will take us quite some time to get back to anything like that.”

On Thursday, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey revealed that Philadelphia’s poverty rate decreased from 24.5% to 23.3% between 2018 and 2019. In the same period, its median household income edged up slightly, from $46,116 to $47,474.

Even though the city was improving in 2019, nearly every piece of good news was counterbalanced by a less-than-welcome development that occurred before the coronavirus struck.

» READ MORE: Federal report surprises, saying Philadelphia poverty is down, and income is up (from 2019)

Poverty dipped, but Philadelphia remained the poorest of the 10 most populous U.S. cities, and the only big city with a poverty rate above 20%.

Median household income went up, but it was still about $21,000 below the nationwide median of $68,703.

Black poverty declined from around 29% to under 27%; but Hispanic poverty rose to more than 40% from 37%. And Asian poverty was climbing, from 21% to more than 23%. Both rises were attributed to increases in immigrant populations, according to local experts. White poverty dropped from 14% to just under 13%.

Childhood poverty slid a bit from about 34% to more than 32%, but Temple University sociologist Judith Levine said that having “one-third of all kids in poverty is unacceptable.”

» READ MORE: Philadelphia among worst counties for children, report says; N.J. counties among the top

There also was nothing good to say about deep poverty, which measures the incomes of those living at 50% or below the federal poverty line of $26,172 annually for a family of four (in 2019 dollars). Still the highest among America’s biggest cities, Philadelphia’s deep-poverty rate was at 11.1% in 2018 and 2019, with more than 170,000 individuals stuck in that untenable spot.

What the 2019 numbers showed, said Levine, director of the Temple Public Policy Lab, is that “there’s a certain intractable poverty problem here that is very hard to reduce for the most disadvantaged people.”

Zandi agreed: “The poverty problems Philadelphia has been struggling with for years are deep-seated and broad. We’re the first economy to suffer when things go off the rails, and the last to see improvement when things get back on track, hindering us in good times and bad.”

Other parts of the region enjoyed a better 2019.

Philadelphia’s collar counties and South Jersey all saw a drop in poverty, except for Delaware County, where it rose from 8.6% to 9.9%.

“I don’t know why specifically that happened, but Delaware is one of the poorest counties in the state,” said Beverly Donaldson, executive director of the Neighbor to Neighbor Community Development Organization in Sharon Hill.

Similarly, the median household income shot up in every county — Delaware included — in 2019, with Gloucester County reporting the highest jump, from $81,849 to $89,447.

Chester became the only local county to exceed a $100,000 median household income ($102,016 to be precise). “People there work in biotech, pharmaceuticals, and computer software," Zandi said. "They’re highly skilled and compensated. Chester County is one of the richest in America.”

The survey reported that Camden City’s poverty rate plummeted from around 41% to less than 29%.

“I’m surprised by that,” said sociologist Laura Napolitano at Rutgers-Camden. “None of the indicators I know of would show that people in Camden are getting less poor. No one’s wages went up that much. It could be a data-coding error.”

» READ MORE: Incomes were up and poverty was down across America in 2019 — and then COVID-19 hit

Overall in Pennsylvania, the poverty rate saw an increase, from 11.7% to 12%, at the same time the median household income swelled from $60,905 to $63,463. In New Jersey, the poverty rate was shaved from 9.5% to 9.2%, with the median household income jumping from $81,740 to $85,751.

Reacting to the poverty drop in 2019, Mayor Jim Kenney said, “This data gives me confidence in the strategies we adopted during the first term of our administration to tackle the systemic challenge of poverty in Philadelphia.” He added, “Like the coronavirus pandemic, systemic poverty is too complex for one body to solve alone; it rests with all of us and requires shared bold solutions.”

Mariana Chilton, a poverty expert at Drexel University, had a different take. “These numbers demonstrate just how slow change in the Philadelphia area has been, especially for people living in deep poverty,” said Chilton, professor of health management and policy director for the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at the Dornsife School of Public Health.

“State policy makers, Philadelphia government and local businesses must dig a lot deeper if they don’t want to continue their legacy of exploitation, neglect, and disrespect towards Philadelphia’s poorest families.”

As much as experts appreciated the modest improvements in poverty demonstrated by the census survey, they indicated that so much of the good was swamped by the COVID-19 tsunami.

“We are seeing 60% more people accessing the charitable food network here and in the United States since we were hit by the COVID reality,” said Loree Jones, CEO of Philabundance, a regional hunger-relief agency.

She noted that Philabundance was feeding 90,000 people a week in nine area counties even before the pandemic. “Those numbers were alarming and concerning then,” she said. The current thinking is that local food insecurity — not having access to enough food for a healthy life — will rise from 16.3% in 2018 to 21.2% in 2020.

» READ MORE: Hunger expected to explode here, throughout America, because of COVID-19

Kathy Fisher, policy director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, said that while she was encouraged by some improvements in 2019, “it’s heartbreaking to know the pandemic has shattered any hope of continued progress."

"If Congress doesn’t pass additional COVID relief very soon, it’s daunting to think how long it will take to climb out of the current deep crisis — and tragic to know how many people will be left behind.”