The poverty rate in Philadelphia jumped nearly two percentage points from 2009 to 2010, according to a federal report released Thursday, underscoring the growing plight of residents being swamped by unemployment and hard times.
"I'm always crying," said Valencia Sydney, a 34-year-old Northeast Philadelphia single mother of one who lost her part-time certified nursing assistant job last year, then plummeted from the working class into poverty. She and her 21/2-year-old daughter face eviction from their $640-a-month apartment, and the two may have to move into a shelter, she said.
"It's so hard to get a job right now," Sydney said. "It's very frustrating, and I don't want to have to live on the street."
Poverty levels varied throughout the region, according to the report, known as the 2010 American Community Survey Single Year Estimate, the annual sampling of 2 percent of the U.S. population. It's conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, but is separate from the actual census.
Among South Jersey counties, Camden County registered the highest poverty rate in 2010 at 12.4 percent, nearly double those of Burlington and Gloucester Counties, where poverty rates dropped slightly.
In the Pennsylvania suburbs, the average poverty rate increased from 6 percent to 6.7 percent, with the highest rate in Delaware County, at 9.7 percent.
(The report showed a startling 75 percent increase in poverty in Bucks County between 2009 and 2010. Sharon Barker, interim co-chief executive officer of United Way of Bucks County, said that may have been a mistake. The census may have underreported the number of people in poverty in 2009, making the number in 2010 seem greater than it was.)
Last week, the Census Bureau released figures showing that 46.2 million Americans were in poverty in 2010 - more than at any other time since poverty levels were first published 52 years ago. The U.S. poverty rate was 15.1 percent.
Overall in Pennsylvania, the poverty rate was lower than the national average, at 13.4 percent, according to the new numbers. New Jersey was also in better shape, with a poverty rate of 10.3 percent.
Behind the pain of increased poverty in Philadelphia is unemployment.
"It's not terribly surprising to see poverty rates in Philadelphia jump up," said Mark Price, labor economist with the Keystone Research Center, a research and policy development institute in Harrisburg. "Lack of jobs translates into less income and more family stress."
In the city, the unemployment rate is 10.8 percent, compared with 9.8 percent nationally, Price said his research showed. That's the second-highest unemployment rate recorded in Philadelphia since 1970, when such statistics were first kept, he added. Unemployment reached 11.1 percent during the recession of 1983.
"Deep recession extends the reach of poverty well beyond where it normally tends to be," Price said.
Between 2007, when the recession started, and last year, the number of people living in poverty in Philadelphia rose by 64,000 - roughly the population of Bensalem, survey figures showed.
The number of Philadelphians living in poverty in 2007 was 333,142, a 23.8 percent rate. The number in 2010 was 397,083, for the nearly 27 percent rate.
The hike last year was particularly steep. "A 1.7 percent increase from 25 percent to 26.7 percent poverty may not sound like a lot, but that's nearly 23,000 more children, parents, brothers, and sisters struggling to get by each and every day," said Kathy Fisher of Philadelphia's Public Citizens for Children and Youth.
Wary that legislators are considering cutting some programs that aid the poor, Fisher added, "Congress should consider [the 23,000] before making vast and steep cuts that will make their climb out of poverty even harder. Our city's economy won't fully recover if we leave more than a quarter of our people behind."
Making the Philadelphia numbers worse is the prospect of a continuing dismal outlook.
"There's nothing mitigating long-term trends," said David Elesh, urban sociologist at Temple University. "Without significant job growth, the poverty rate will not improve."
Elesh added that people were running out of resources, including unemployment insurance and savings. Eviction or foreclosure often follow.
"The saddest thing I've heard people tell me is, 'This is the last time you'll see me, they're taking my house,' " said Linda Freeman, director of the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry in Prospect Park, Delaware County. The pantry fed 13,000 people last year, and will feed 15,000 by the end of this year, Freeman said.
The numbers - Freeman's and the census' - represent real people in deep trouble.
"I'm very stressed," said Nadina Patterson, 61, a divorced South Philadelphia mother of two grown children.
She was laid off from her job as a receptionist in a social service agency and is now clinging to part-time work. "I'm looking for jobs, and looking, and looking, and it's not happening," Patterson said. "Two or three years ago, I could find a new job in three months. But this is a different story.
"Doors close on me all the time. At this point, I'm very scared."