Before the economy plunged toward coronavirus catastrophe this year, you would have hoped that, at the very least, it was working well enough to provide most of us a cushion to ride out the storm of 36 million Americans now unemployed.

That has not been the case. Not by a long shot. Most acutely in the suburbs of Philadelphia, some of the most remarkable disappointments of our nation’s economy have played out in ways that do not match political rhetoric that attempts to portray the stock market as proof that Americans have prospered like never before.

An Inquirer analysis of census data shows that in communities across the Southeastern Pennsylvania political battleground suburbs, and in South Jersey — in zip codes long known as stepping-stones or destinations for the middle- and working-class — a majority of residents were struggling to make income gains during the decade of so-called recovery after the Great Recession ended in 2009.

Eight out of 10 suburban residents lived in towns where median incomes either failed to keep up with the rate of inflation, or were flat, or may have grown only modestly above the inflation rate, based on census estimates through the year 2018. At the same time, the S&P 500 stock index rose 178 percent.

The findings echo trends seen in recent years nationally, in which economic spoils increasingly have gone to a small few while the majority of Americans are left scrounging for a few dollars here, a few dollars there, if any more dollars at all.

And that was before the pandemic this year. Before approaching Great Depression-era levels of unemployment in which we now find ourselves as a nation. Before regional stay-at-home orders shuttered businesses in jeopardy of now collapsing.

Fifty-six percent of residents in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties live in towns where median household income actually went down after adjusting for inflation from 2009 to 2018. That number in South Jersey was 67% across Camden, Gloucester and Burlington Counties. As a region overall, but including Philadelphia, 64% saw incomes fall over that period.

It’s hard to state conclusively what is happening in the region’s smaller towns due to margins of error. But the overall picture is unmistakable: More than a third of Philadelphia’s suburban population live in municipalities in which income declined by 5% or more from 2009 to 2018. Another 46% experienced only slightly more modest declines or modest increases. The numbers are better, but not by much, than a similar analysis of data released about four years ago.

A lucky few — 20% in all — saw incomes increase a total of 5% or more above inflation over the nine-year period as a whole.

Statewide, inflation-adjusted income rose just 1.9% in total over the nine-year period. This ranks Pennsylvania 17th among all states, even during the Trump presidency.

Any boasts about a soaring stock market delivering prosperity to the nation as a whole do not hold water. The spoils of the last economic recovery were selectively sprinkled onto the budgets of a small few in our region, as has been the case nationally. Reasons range from the weakening of labor protections to federal tax cuts disproportionately benefiting corporations and the wealthy.

“Lower middle income households have struggled to keep up and have actually fallen behind in the last decade or so,” said Moody’s Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi, an Upper Merion High School and Wharton graduate who found The Inquirer’s regional findings to be consistent with what data have shown more broadly in recent years. "They were making some progress over the past two or three years. The labor market had gotten tight enough that wage growth was really lifting the incomes of lower- to middle-income households.

“But that was for a brief, shining moment," Zandi said. "And of course now we have the COVID crisis. And we’re right back into the quicksand.”

Upper Darby Township employees at stack boxes of MRE meals at Drexel Hill Middle School last month for distribution to food pantries and homeless shelters in Delaware County struggling to keep up with demand.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Upper Darby Township employees at stack boxes of MRE meals at Drexel Hill Middle School last month for distribution to food pantries and homeless shelters in Delaware County struggling to keep up with demand.

Last year, the Federal Reserve found that four out of every 10 Americans had so little savings they would have trouble covering an unexpected $400 emergency household expense. A lot of those people, we now can surmise, very likely live in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

“That means 40% of Americans are living, literally, paycheck to paycheck,” Zandi said. Congress and the Trump administration must provide more cash directly to people and small businesses to avert an even greater disaster, Zandi said — something that Fed Chair Jerome Powell echoed Wednesday, rattling markets.

“They have to continue to fill that void until jobs come back, because these households have nothing,” Zandi said. “There’s no cushion there.”

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently suggested that states go bankrupt rather than be given federal aid to help plug bleeding budgets in the wake of state responses to the COVID crisis. He also has moved slowly on Democratic proposals to extend emergency pandemic aid to individuals, even after swiftly dispensing billions to big businesses in earlier bailouts.

A failure to send federal aid would potentially send state and local taxes soaring — a direct hit to many of the Pennsylvanians who’ve already been struggling to keep up.

Fully 28% of Pennsylvania’s workforce (1.8 million) had filed unemployment claims as of Thursday, and 23% in New Jersey (more than 1 million), casualties of lockdowns that hit the region in March to contain the spread of the deadly new virus.

Towns that entered our current crisis with some of the worst income numbers are expected to be among the hardest hit right now.

In Bensalem Township, whose manufacturing economy in lower Bucks County has suffered years of deindustrialization, median household income was down an estimated 8%, to $63,943 from $69,590.

In Lower Gwynedd, Montgomery County, where pharmaceutical powerhouse Merck last year off-loaded a massive building and 154 acres in a sale to Gwynedd Mercy University, median household income dropped 14% to $101,116. (It had been about $117,851 in 2009.)

In Upper Darby, one of the highest-population townships in Pennsylvania, median income dropped 9% to $54,870. With a dense mix of blue-collar and white-collar employees, it is experiencing a surge in hunger since the pandemic began.

An aerial photo shows former Merck Co., Inc., property, along Sumneytown Pike, that was sold last year to Gwynedd Mercy University in Lower Gwynedd, Pa.
An aerial photo shows former Merck Co., Inc., property, along Sumneytown Pike, that was sold last year to Gwynedd Mercy University in Lower Gwynedd, Pa.

In Gloucester County, N.J., Deptford Township saw median income fall 8% to $70,957, not unlike in Burlington County’s Burlington Township, where income dropped 11% to $88,135.

Unsurprisingly, some of the most high-income enclaves whose expensive housing are barriers to entry for many middle-class families enjoyed durability to their affluence: Radnor saw income rise 9% to $114,063; Tredyffrin notched a 13% gain to $129,332; and Haddonfield, and Moorestown, N.J., saw 14% and 10% income gains, respectively.

Lower-paying retail jobs and small businesses have replaced many steel, and even clerical jobs that once provided strong middle-class wages in the region. That is especially true in Lower Bucks County, said Robert Cormack, after I told the longtime executive director of the Bucks County Economic Development Corp. about ongoing income declines there.

Donald Trump sent Mike Pence to hard-hit Bensalem Township four years ago for a rally ahead of the election. And yet, the data show no substantial turnaround in median incomes even well into the Trump presidency.

Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence campaigns in Bensalem in 2016.
Margo Reed / File Photograph
Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence campaigns in Bensalem in 2016.

Local officials across the suburbs are desperate for Gov. Tom Wolf to somehow boost testing sufficiently so that businesses can open back up. But this cannot happen unless federal officials also provide funding and resources they have not yet ponied up.

“Too many people are not working at this point,” Carmack said. “We need to get them back into their jobs.”

If only those jobs hadn’t left them so close to the precipice to begin with.

Graphics editor John Duchneskie contributed to this article.

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