The percentage of households receiving food stamps in Philadelphia increased by nearly 3 percentage points between 2007 and 2008 - the period of time marking the start of the recession - according to figures released yesterday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

And that number is only expected to rise, according to Rachel Meeks, food-stamp campaign manager for the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.

"Numbers are going up pretty dramatically because of the economy," Meeks said yesterday. "People are losing their jobs, or they're losing their hours at work. It's pretty rough out there."

According to the new census data, known as the American Community Survey, Pennsylvania was one of only seven states that recorded an increase in the number and percentage of people in poverty between 2007 and 2008.

In 2008, the poverty line for a family of two adults and two children was $21,834, according to the census; for a family of two adults and one child, it was $17,330.

The number of Pennsylvanians living below the poverty line went from 1,393,026 (11.6 percent) in 2007 to 1,458,394 (12.1 percent) in 2008, survey figures show.

Pennsylvania ranks 29th in the United States in poverty, with Mississippi being the poorest state (21.2 percent in poverty) and New Hampshire being the least poor (7.6 percent).

New Jersey was among the country's better-off states, with a poverty rate of 8.7 percent. Only New Hampshire, Maryland, and Alaska had fewer people living in poverty. In 2007, New Jersey's poverty rate was 8.6 percent.

Overall, 13.2 percent of the U.S. population lived below the poverty threshold in 2008, an increase of 0.2 of a percentage point over 2007. The estimated number of people in poverty increased by 1.1 million to 39.1 million in 2008, survey figures show.

Philadelphia fared better than the state as a whole in terms of increases in the number of people in poverty, although Philadelphia remains one of five counties with the highest poverty rates in the state.

The poverty rate went up by just 0.3 of a percentage point in Philadelphia, from 23.8 percent in 2007 to 24.1 percent in 2008. In 2006, Philadelphia's poverty rate was 25.1 percent, survey figures show.

In the region, there was little change in the percentage of individuals with income below the poverty level. Montgomery County registered the highest increase in poverty, up 1.1 percentage points from 5.3 percent in 2007 to 6.4 percent in 2008, survey figures show.

The largest regional decrease in poverty was registered by Gloucester County, where poverty went down 1.2 percentage points from 8.1 percent to 6.9 percent, according to the survey.

The reason the region did not show large increases in poverty was because "the recession really didn't take hold here in 2007-08, since we're somewhat more insulated," according to David Elesh, coprincipal investigator of the Metropolitan Philadelphia Indicators Project at Temple University.

The area's industrial profile offered protection for a while, Elesh said. Plus, this area is less involved in housing construction, and so did not have the same exposure to the mortgage meltdown that plagued other areas.

Also, Elesh said, the kind of manufacturing done in this area was initially less susceptible to the economic downturn because it is more related to pharmaceuticals, not automobiles and appliances, which suffered tremendous losses.

Looking to next year, Elesh said he expected to see higher poverty in this area because there was greater unemployment in 2009 than in 2007 and 2008.

Much of the poverty increase in Pennsylvania was registered in rural central and western Pennsylvania, especially Fayette and Clearfield Counties, which traditionally depend on manufacturing jobs, according to Sharon Ward, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

"While there's high poverty in the city of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia region overall is wealthier and experiencing greater growth than these poor, rural counties," she said.

Regarding food stamps, it's not unusual to see a greater increase in food-stamp usage than in the poverty rate, said Mariana Chilton of Drexel University's School of Public Health.

"The people getting food stamps are the working poor, who aren't at the poverty level but are close," she said.

While the American Community Survey is a widely used tool, it is not without critics.

Both the Economic Policy Institute in Washington and the Pathways Pa. advocacy group in Delaware County decry the survey as basically flawed.

That's because of its reliance on the federal poverty level, criticized as an outdated device that does not realistically take into account the costs of housing, food, child care, transportation, health care, and taxes.

In Philadelphia, for example, a family of four with two adults, a preschooler and a child of school age needs $53,000 annually to keep going without reliance on social services, according to Marianne Bellesorte, director of policy at Pathways Pa. That's well above the $21,834 poverty line for that size of family.

When social service agencies calculate poverty, "they are bound by the census," she added.

Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.