Census: Poverty level steady in Philadelphia, drops in Camden

Abandoned row homes in the city's Germantown section. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ/Staff Photographer)

Philadelphia remained the poorest of America's 10 largest cities in 2014, with more than one quarter of its residents - 26 percent - living below the poverty line.

At the same time, Camden recorded a seemingly significant drop in poverty in 2014 from 42.6 percent to 36.5 percent - a change experts had a hard time explaining.

Both findings were mined from the massive data trove known as the American Community Survey 1-Year Estimate, a product of the U.S. Census Bureau, set to officially be released Thursday.

The findings came on the heels of another report disseminated Wednesday by the bureau, which showed that the official U.S. median income and poverty rates were statistically unchanged between 2013 and 2014.

Median household income was $53,657 in 2014, compared with $54,462 in 2013. Federal analysts say the drop of $805 is not statistically different.

Meanwhile, the 2014 poverty rate was 14.8 percent, with 46.7 million people living in poverty. In 2013, the rate was also 14.8 percent, or 46.2 million people. Statistically, the numbers are virtually the same, analysts said.

The federal poverty line for a family of three was about $20,000 in 2014.

While income and poverty numbers remained the same, antipoverty advocates said Wednesday it doesn't diminish the reality that too many Americans live hard lives.

"The nation continues to be plagued by an uneven recovery [from the recession], stagnant wages, inadequate public safety net programs, and rampant inequality," said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research & Action Center in Washington, the nation's leading antihunger advocacy group.

Closer to home, Mariana Chilton, hunger expert at Drexel University's School of Public Health, called the replicated rate of poverty a "horrifying status quo."

"Our school system, our housing systems, our abominable city minimum wage are all implicated," she added.

Eva Gladstein, executive director of the Mayor's Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity, called Philadelphia's high poverty rate "catastrophic for the individuals and families in our city."

Philadelphia is beset by anemic job growth, which helped create disengaged young people unable to connect to the workforce, said Neeta Fogg, labor expert at Drexel's Center for Labor Markets and Policy.

Of particular concern to advocates was the children's poverty rate of nearly 37 percent in Philadelphia - similar to 2013's number and just as perilous for "setting young lives on life courses of horrible effect," said Rebecca Vallas, director of policy for the left-leaning Center for American Progress in Washington.

Philadelphia's 2014 poverty rate of 26 percent - or 394,765 people - isn't much different than the 2013 rate of 26.3 percent.

Similarly, the 2014 poverty rate in most of the city's suburban counties didn't vary significantly from 2013 figures. The overall Pennsylvania poverty rate barely changed from 2013 to 2014: 13.7 percent to 13.6 percent. And in New Jersey, the state poverty rate was virtually the same, 11.4 percent in 2013, 11.1 percent in 2014.

But in a surprising finding, the city of Camden saw its poverty rate fall from 42.6 percent in 2013 to 36.5 percent in 2014.

Analysts weren't sure why. One guess, by Melville D. Miller Jr., president of Legal Services of New Jersey in Edison, is that Camden has become "the poster child for depopulation," he said.

"The poor are moving out," he said. "It's gentrification."

Miller and others speculated that the poor are being displaced by middle-class people with middle-class jobs.

But, analysts hastened to add, a staggering 55 percent of Camden's children live in poverty.

Census data also showed that programs such as the earned income-tax credit help keep people out of poverty.

Conservative commentators such as Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation used the release of Census data to say that the poor in America are not as bad off as people believe. Many have computers, air-conditioning, and cable TV, Rector said in a statement issued Wednesday.

Advocates for the poor say a family can be poor and still have a TV.

"Last year, we gave away 21.5 million pounds of food to people in poverty in Philadelphia," said Steveanna Wynn, executive director of SHARE, a food distribution program. "This year we'll give out more.

"It's unacceptable we have so many in poverty."


alubrano@phillynews.com

215-854-4969@AlfredLubrano

Correction: An earlier version of this article reported incorrect figures for the poverty rates in Pa. and N.J.