African Americans in Philadelphia saw their poverty rate decline and household income increase at levels that surpassed citywide averages last year, according to updated U.S. Census Bureau figures.
But the figures do not account for economic devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic this year.
The Black poverty rate dipped to 26.7% in 2019 from 29.4% the previous year while African-American households saw their inflation-adjusted median income jump 8.3% during the same period to $36,601, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) 1-Year Estimates for 2019.
Philadelphia’s overall poverty rate dropped to 23.3% in 2019 from 24.5% the previous year, according to the survey.
Philadelphia’s inflation-adjusted median household income reached $47,474 last year, an increase of nearly 3% from 2018.
But since March, the pandemic has pushed millions out of work and affected entire industries. The U.S. unemployment rate was 8.4% this month.
In Pennsylvania, 2.1 million people have filed for unemployment claims since March, according to state figures. The Philadelphia non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 18.1% in July, according to the most recent federal figures.
Some groups in Philadelphia were moving in the “right direction” in the recent census survey, but the pandemic has made the data “ancient history,” said sociologist Judith Levine, director of Temple University’s Public Policy Lab.
“The pandemic has likely destroyed all of these gains that were built steadily over a 10-year period,” Levine said.
The disease has disproportionately affected African Americans and people of color, Levine said. And these groups make up a larger share of the industries that were the hardest hit by the pandemic shutdowns.
“So families may be plummeted into poverty,” Levine said.
Each ACS survey provides data — population, poverty, income and scores of other statistics — from the previous year. Data from 2017 should not be compared to other years due to a massive error in data the Census Bureau collected on Philadelphia’s population that year.
Blacks had the second highest poverty rate in the city in 2019, behind Hispanics and Latinos at 40.2% (which ticked up from 37.8% the previous year). Last year Blacks had the highest number of individuals in poverty — 171,581. The white poverty rate was 12.7% in 2019, down from 14.1% the previous year.
The deep poverty rate, defined as 50 percent below the federal poverty line, declined negligibly to 170,100 in 2019 from 170,851 the previous year.
Blacks also had the second lowest inflation-adjusted median income in the city behind Hispanics and Latinos — $32,425 — among defined races.
The white inflation-adjusted median income rose 7.8% to $70,034, which was the highest median income in the city.
The child poverty rate fell to 32.1% in 2019 from 34.6% the previous year.
Steven Scott Bradley, chairman of the board of the African American Chamber of Commerce Chamber, was “really surprised” at positive gains African Americans made last year, saying they did not appear consistent with the lack of growth in Philadelphia’s Black business corridors.
Bradley expected African Americans would most likely see setbacks this year.
“The restaurant industry is being killed,” Bradley said. “A lot of small businesses and corridors are going out of business, so you’re seeing vacancies.”
George Matysik, executive director of the Share Food Program, said the nonprofit has seen its food distribution increase six-fold in the past 18 months. The organization now serves more than 1.5 million meals a week in Philadelphia and the region.
Matysik, who oversees one of the largest charitable food agencies in the region, said the pandemic has affected “all communities.”
“Communities that have not had multi-generational poverty have seen high rates of poverty for the first time,” Matysik said, adding, “We’re seeing families in every ZIP code being impacted at levels we’ve never seen before.”
African Americans were over-represented in initial unemployment claims in the city, said Kenney administration spokeswoman Kelly Cofrancisco in an email.
Although African Americans make up 39% of the city’s labor force, they constituted 45% of the initial unemployment claimants between March 15 and Aug. 8, Cofrancisco said. They also make up 52% of recent continuing claims, showing that they were returning to work at lower rates than Philadelphians of other races.
The Kenney administration continued to advocate for a new federal stimulus package to give direct aid to individuals businesses and municipalities, Cofrancisco said.
Although the city had made strides in recent years to reduce its poverty rate, the pandemic was likely to exacerbate those issues that contributed to Philadelphia’s already high poverty rate, Levine said.
“Next year when these numbers come out, I’m just bracing myself,” Levine said. “I think poverty and deep poverty will look really bad both in Philadelphia and nationally.
“It’s a very bleak picture.”