Illustrating the gap between wealth and poverty in the area, new census data shows that in Philadelphia's impoverished Fairhill section, residents have median household incomes of $14,185 a year - 1/12 that of the richest region in the area, Chester County's Birmingham Township.

The median household income in Birmingham, a bedroom community of financiers, lawyers, and other professionals 32 miles west of Center City, is $171,689, according to estimates compiled between 2009 and 2013 in the newly released American Community Survey from the Census Bureau.

The polar extremes in income are, experts say, stark examples of the inequality that's growing throughout America.

"People live such incredibly different lives so close together," said Judith Levine, sociology professor at Temple University. "Inequality is going up so much. These are very depressing numbers."

Fairhill, the poorest neighborhood in Philadelphia, has a poverty rate of 57 percent.

To understand income trends in the region, The Inquirer compared the current American Community Survey with statistics from the 2000 Census. All income levels in the examination are adjusted to 2013 dollars.

The Inquirer examination shows that Northern Liberties was the city neighborhood whose median income increased more than any other - 65 percent between the 2000 Census and the 2009-13 American Community Survey. Median incomes rose from $29,499 to $48,798.

Conversely, the Wynnefield/Overbrook neighborhood registered the largest decrease in median income during that same time, from $42,087 to $27,914.

Philadelphia overall had a median income of $37,192 in the current survey, a drop of 13.5 percent from 1999.

In New Jersey, the highest median income was registered in Harrison, Gloucester County, at $126,187, while the lowest was in Camden, at $26,202.

The inequality on both sides of the river is glaring, experts say.

The top 1 percent of Pennsylvania earners took home more than half the total increase in income over the past 30 years, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

"We are leaving behind the population that once had access to jobs that would bring them into the middle class," said Jeffery Osgood Jr., public policy professor at West Chester University. "It would take a retooling of the population to give them training and skills to succeed."

As well off as Birmingham is, figures show, life in the township of 4,200 was better at the turn of the century.

The median income then (when adjusted to 2013 dollars) was $181,913, 6 percent higher than it is now.

"The recession gave us a hit," said John Conklin, chairman of the Birmingham board of supervisors. "It impacted real estate and investment income."

On the other end of the spectrum, Fairhill is "extremely bleak," Levine said, adding, "That's a depth of poverty hard for people to fathom."

Paradoxically, the growing availability of low-wage service jobs may be a partial explanation for worsening conditions in the neighborhood.

"As people start to get jobs, they stop getting federal benefits," said Galen Tyler, an organizer with the Philadelphia chapter of the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign. "These jobs don't allow you to sustain a family. Getting a job is pushing people further into poverty."

Accounting for the impressive rise in income in Northern Liberties, Temple sociologist David Elesh said gentrification changed the place completely: "A whole bunch of better-off people moving in made the difference."

Trending in the opposite direction, Wynnefield/Overbrook saw income fall by one-third, probably because an aging population has been retiring, lowering income, Elesh said.

In the Pennsylvania suburbs, the largest increase in median income was seen in Conshohocken, up 21 percent from $60,965 in 1999 to $73,750 during the survey years.

"Lots of financial institutions have set up in Conshohocken, bringing jobs with them," Elesh said. "And you've seen lots of construction there."

The largest percentage decrease was in Highland, Chester County, where income dipped 34 percent, from $77,606 to $51,250. Experts blamed the recession for the change.

Experts were unable to explain the largest percentage increase in median income in South Jersey, recorded in New Hanover, Burlington County, which saw a 38 percent rise, from $62,065 in 1999 to $85,582 in the survey years.

The county also saw the large percentage decrease in South Jersey: 29 percent down, from $92,856 to $66,338 in Eastampton. The recession was the reason, experts said.

In Pennsylvania, Chester in Delaware County recorded the lowest median income in the survey - $27,249.

"It's just hard here," said Robyn Pringle, 22, the mother of three children, ages 6, 3 and 1. She lives in poverty, making $220 month working at the Bernardine Center, a social service organization in town. She also receives $600 in monthly food-stamp benefits.

Pringle dreams of running a day-care center, but, she wonders, where will the money come for that?

All in all, she'd just as soon leave Chester.

"I have to get out," she said. "The killings, the stealing. But where can I go?"


Regional income disparities. Graphic,A18.


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