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Child poverty down? Don’t believe it, experts say

The people who spend their days fighting poverty say kids here are no better off than before, despite the U.S. Census Bureau's report.

Sophia Delgado, 18, of Hunting Park, understands what it's like to grow up in poverty in Philadelphia.
Sophia Delgado, 18, of Hunting Park, understands what it's like to grow up in poverty in Philadelphia.Read moreSophia Delgado

When the federal government reported Sept. 13 that childhood poverty dropped 5 percentage points in Philadelphia between 2016 and 2017, it seemed like a minor victory.

But no one in town is celebrating.

The people who spend their days fighting poverty say kids here are no better off than before, despite the U.S. Census Bureau's report that poverty among children under age 18 fell from 37.3 percent to 31.9 percent.

The city's overall poverty rate of nearly 26 percent remained static. And deep poverty — the state of living at 50 percent or below the federal poverty level — shot up from around 12 percent to 14 percent. At the same time, the city's median household income fell 4 percent, from $41,449 to $39,759.

The purported drop in childhood poverty, experts contend, is either wrong or an inexplicable statistical glitch. antipoverty advocates say. Even if you calculate the Census Bureau's 2.7 percent margin of error into the poverty rate, the stated decrease in childhood poverty would still be unusually high.

"It's hard to believe that figure," said Kathy Fisher, policy director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. "It's hard to believe it would have dropped that much, especially with deep poverty going up."

That poverty is a steady condition in children's lives is not news to Sophia Delgado, 18, of Hunting Park, who grew up poor.

"You feel that struggle every day, the pressure on your shoulders," said Delgado, a sophomore at the Community College of Philadelphia majoring in early childhood education. "It's a reality. You don't have money. You can't do things normal households do. It's obvious to say, but it's hard. And it's just sad."

At a time when President Trump and many members of Congress are looking to cut aid to people in poverty, there seems to be no break in need.

Kate Scully, director of government affairs at Philabundance, the region's largest anti-hunger agency, said that the food pantries her agency supplies are seeing a steady increase in families coming through their doors.

"I don't see how childhood poverty could be going down," she said, adding that while the city has begun to focus on early childhood education as a way to combat poverty, the programs are too new to have moved the needle.

"I continue to find this very strange," said Temple University sociologist Judith Levine, who has been studying census figures. "It's really a puzzle."

She added that even if childhood poverty here declined to 32 percent, "people shouldn't be excited. Nearly one out of three children in poverty is extremely high."

In a study of her own, Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities and a professor of health management and policy at Drexel University, found that the difficulties of people living in poverty were increasing.

Chilton discovered that childhood hunger tripled in North Philadelphia recently among families where parents work 20 hours or more a week. Chilton's findings come from a project at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, part of Children's HealthWatch, a national research network that investigates the impact of public assistance programs on children's health

She speculated that she may have interviewed people not captured by census surveyors. "Terrible housing conditions, recluse landlords, erratic jobs and pay, and degradation in systems in the area around North Philadelphia" continue to plague families, she said.

"Many of them may not even make it on the radar, and may not be counted or found," Chilton added.

Fisher wondered whether many of the "disappearing" poor may be undocumented immigrants who take pains to get off the grid. She said that participation by immigrants in some antipoverty programs has dropped off because people don't want to draw attention to themselves.

David Chiles, executive director of Providence Center, an education and leadership program for children in Fairhill — Philadelphia's poorest neighborhood — said no one's life is getting any easier, despite census numbers.

"There's less unemployment, but wages are not better, and parents have to piece together hours to help their families," he said. "Nothing is comfortable or secure."

Another study released last week showed that 65 percent of infants and toddlers in Philadelphia live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty — twice the national average, according to Child Trends, a national nonprofit research organization based in Bethesda, Md.

The study also showed that nearly 72 percent of the parents of Philadelphia's infants and toddlers are in the labor force, lower than the national rate of 74 percent.

For a child living in poverty in Philadelphia, Delgado said, each day is cataloged as time you never want to live again.

"My mother works three part-time jobs, and we're still under the poverty rate," said Delgado, who works at Providence Center. For a family of four — Delgado and her mother, who is separated, live with Delgado's two brothers — the rate is $25,100.

A child in Philadelphia poverty sees awful things, Delgado said, especially on the way home from school.

"It's not a nice little bus ride," she said. "You walk around and see addicts, drug corners, people in fights. It's not something I ever want to see again.

"The poor kids out here, they're not bad people. They're just victims."

Philadelphia Media Network is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city's push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at