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Recovery? Incomes down throughout region

The Great Recession ended more than six years ago, but the fallout has been profound, with incomes down in 75 percent of city neighborhoods and towns across the region since 2009, according to an Inquirer analysis of U.S. Census data.

Shopping along 69th Street in Upper Darby, one of many communities regionwide where income has dropped since 2009, according to U.S. Census data.
Shopping along 69th Street in Upper Darby, one of many communities regionwide where income has dropped since 2009, according to U.S. Census data.Read moreED HILLE / Staff Photographer

The Great Recession ended more than six years ago, but the fallout has been profound, with incomes down in 75 percent of city neighborhoods and towns across the region since 2009, according to an Inquirer analysis of U.S. Census data.

The findings reinforce the grim reality that many people have endured well after economists declared the nation in recovery from its most brutal recession since World War II: Whether in historically affluent or impoverished communities, for most this recovery has seen no rise in wages.

In some cases the losses have been dramatic, with Wynnefield, on the border with Montgomery County, experiencing a 26 percent drop.

While the reasons for gains in some places and losses in others are at times haphazard and puzzling, the overall census numbers are striking.

Median household income was down 7 percent in the Main Line anchor of Lower Merion Township, 11 percent in Upper Darby Township, and in some formerly middle-class strongholds in Northeast Philadelphia.

The exceptions included Southwest Center City, up 22 percent, and East Norriton Township, Montgomery County, at 3 percent.

The data, which chronicle a five-year period ending in 2014, parallel a nationwide trend in which only a handful of states, and counties in Pennsylvania, have been spared the pounding on incomes since the 2008 global financial crisis nearly led the nation into full-fledged depression.

"The center of the country, going from North Dakota straight down to Texas, is more or less the only place where we really saw any significant income gains," said Gary Wagner, regional economic adviser for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Riches have flowed there from the recent oil- and gas-drilling bonanza.

In Pennsylvania, the same is true. The only seven of the 67 counties that posted gains in income all are related to shale gas: Allegheny, Bedford, Bradford, Clearfield, Indiana, Susquehanna, and Tioga, Wagner said.

But Southeastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and Delaware have not been party to that boomlet.

"What is clear is that the standard definition of an economic recovery needs some work," said David Elesh, a longtime Temple University professor and demographer, who suggested the inadequacy of using gross domestic product as the measure of economic recovery.

"GDP can clearly grow," Elesh said, "while earnings stagnate or fall."

Income fell in 180 of the 239 municipalities in Philadelphia's neighboring counties and in 72 of 99 South Jersey municipalities.

In Philadelphia, income grew in Center City and many of its surrounding neighborhoods, spurred by new development and an influx of younger residents. But citywide, income has fallen 7 percent since 2009 and 14 percent since 1999. Both figures are adjusted to 2014 dollars to account for inflation.

While the exact whys are impossible to know given the limitations of the data, communities that enjoyed gains or absorbed losses seemed to have some things in common.

Gains occurred mostly in towns or Philadelphia neighborhoods where real estate development was strong during the five-year period.

Sharp declines, conversely, were seen in former manufacturing hubs or older neighborhoods and towns where dense housing that once swelled with the nation's burgeoning middle class have, in recent years, become a draw for lower-income families and individuals.

But the trends were not universal.

Incomes were up 5 percent in Tredyffrin Township, whose Chester County school district is among the most coveted in the region and where bidding wars in the $600,000 range are not uncommon for houses being sought by young families led by professionals.

Yet median income was down 9 percent in Doylestown Township, a longtime Bucks County enclave of upward mobility with its own gold-standard Central Bucks School District.

Experts suggested some of the ups and downs might be due to more affluent homeowners moving out and less affluent ones moving in, and vice versa.

But the overarching cause appears to be an erosion of wages.

"It's a countrywide phenomenon, the [wage] stagnation, and especially stagnation in the middle and lower-earning segments of the population," said James Diffley, Philadelphia-based senior director of the IHS Global Insight economics team.

The nation lost 8.7 million jobs in 2008 and 2009 that paid average wages of $61,637, according to an IHS analysis for the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The jobs that have replaced them, at least through the middle of last year, have a corresponding average annual wage of only $47,171, IHS found.

In Wynnefield, along the city's border with Lower Merion Township, the 26 percent income drop was so steep that only three other Philadelphia neighborhoods fared worse: East Falls, Hunting Park, and Powelton.

Wynnefield has historically been a destination community, with century-old stately stone houses intermingled with newer rowhouses and apartment complexes. But its economics and demographics have been changing the last few years, residents said.

The economics certainly have changed in Debbie Brown's house.

"In my house, [only] one of us is working now," said Brown, 55, a longtime Wynnefield resident who, while pushing a cart at the ever-busy Produce Junction at Bryn Mawr and Wynnefield Avenues, said she was downsized out of a medical transcription job a few years ago.

"I got laid off and then my mother had a bad fall, so I just started taking care of her," said Brown, who lives with her husband, an anesthesia technologist. "We realized we can make do on one income."

Just across the street at the Caleco laundromat, a formerly homeless woman who moved into Wynnefield a few months ago from Germantown stuffed bright pink onesies and Minnie Mouse socks into a coin-operated machine while a laid-off unionized laborer stood watch as attendant.

The attendant, Duan Syders, 43, said he moved into Wynnefield around 2010 after a divorce. He makes much less today than he did as a laborer who worked on historic restorations until 2009, he said.

"When I moved here, we didn't have panhandlers," said Syders, who has worked the coin-op for five years. "Now, we have panhandlers at the gas station [across the street] and stationed outside the store."

The young mother, Zakiera Horton, 21, said she moved into a nearby subsidized apartment in May to raise her daughter, Aniyla, in a safer place. She was laid off from her last job after getting pregnant, she said, adding that many of her neighbors appeared to be newcomers, too, and living on rent subsidies.

"Before I even had my child," Horton said, wiping a wisp of hair from her brow, "I was in a shelter."

Education levels likely are one factor in salary differences, economists said. The recovery has disproportionately rewarded workers with higher skills and more formal education, widening the gap between the rich and poor.

"They say the stock market is up, but the stock market is only up for the rich," said Niesha Sutton, 30, a home health aide in Springfield, Delaware County, who was out of work from 2011 to 2012, leaving her family with only the income of her husband, a truck driver, to support their disabled daughter.

Fortunes were more prosperous in western Delaware County, where Chadds Ford and nearby Thornbury were among the leaders in income growth.

Chadds Ford, where one in four households has an income of $200,000 or more, has experienced modest growth in development as its population has ticked up.

Real estate activity also coincided with a sharp income increase across the county in Upper Providence Township, which experienced one of the sharpest increases in income in the suburbs, 14 percent. Aggregate market value for the town has jumped in the last decade to nearly $1.2 billion as home-building development has been active.

Incomes dropped dramatically, however, in some communities with development restrictions.

Lower Oxford Township residents experienced a 29 percent decline. In East Marlborough Township, the drop was 26 percent. Both have strong preservation traditions.

Housing development is an important driver of income changes, said Michael Boyer, a planning and economics expert at Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

"If it's a long-standing stable, built-out community, there isn't a lot of movement there," Boyer said.

"But in communities that have a lot of new housing, new people who are buying housing, incomes will tend to be up."

Stability was a hallmark in Montgomery County, but communities closer to Philadelphia experienced declines. Cheltenham, for example, was down 4 percent.

Incomes were unchanged in Whitpain Township and up 3 percent in nearby Plymouth Township, where more than quarter of households earn between $100,000 and $199,999.

"We're pretty stable," said Plymouth resident Vinnie Dougherty, 51, who moved to the town in 2008 with his wife, Anne, a banker.

One measure of that: how sales are going at the frozen yogurt shop they opened in 2012 in nearby East Norriton. They are "way up" from when they opened the Menchie's Frozen Yogurt franchise, he said. Customers now eat more yogurt on a typical visit, he added.

Beyond the business, things are promising for the pair: They are renovating their home, and just weeks ago, they adopted a child.

Some towns and neighborhoods near closed factories that once churned out middle-class jobs experienced severe income declines.

Along the Delaware River in Trainer, Delaware County, income dropped 23 percent. Farther north along the riverbanks in Bristol Township, Bucks County, the decline was 4 percent. (Income fell 8 percent in nearby Bensalem Township.)

What this shows: "What little manufacturing here is eroding further," said Temple University's Elesh.

To understand just how good the last five years have been, generally, to people with advanced degrees, one need look no further than Philadelphia's Graduate Hospital neighborhood south of Rittenhouse Square.

Joshua Taton has seen the evidence all around him in the neighborhood he calls home, a place where income rose 22 percent.

A barista gently poured hot water out of gleaming urns into single-serve coffee filters as Taton, 40, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, was engrossed behind the screen of his laptop at Ultimo Coffee, on the corner of 22d and Catharine Streets.

"In the grand scheme of things," Taton said, "all of us are quite privileged in Center City and in this particular neighborhood."