Household income in Philadelphia tumbled last year while poverty remains stubbornly high.
Those were some of the top findings released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau in its annual American Community Survey statistics for 2017. The estimates show Philadelphia lagging behind nationwide trends of rising incomes and falling poverty rates.
Median household income for a Philadelphian fell 4 percent to $39,759 from $41,449 in 2016, according to the estimates. The drop halted a trend of rising incomes that began in 2012, according to the ACS.
Nationwide, median household incomes were on the rise, up 2.6 percent to $60,336, which was the highest measure since 2005, according to the ACS. Among the top 25 most populous metropolitan areas, Philadelphia was among eight whose median income decreased between 2016 and 2017.
Poverty in the city remained unchanged from the previous year at 25.7 percent. Philadelphia was among 12 cities in the top 25 most populous metropolitan areas whose poverty rates increased, according to the ACS.
The national poverty rate was estimated at 13.4 percent, down from 14 percent.
Reacting to the new figures, Eva Gladstein, deputy managing director of the city’s Health and Human Services, said: “There was certainly disappointment.”
Gladstein said the city continues to combat poverty that has persisted for decades and has made long-term investments, such as in education.
But when those initiatives and programs will move the needle, Gladstein couldn’t say.
“This is intergenerational poverty that has been out there 50, 60 years and unfortunately is not going to be turned around overnight,” Gladstein said.
Much of the city’s job growth in recent years has been in low-wage jobs, such as retail and hospitality sectors, Gladstein said. In addition, higher minimum wages across the borders in New Jersey or Delaware attract low-wage workers out of the city.
In addition, Gladstein said the city needs more assistance from federal government, the latter of which has reduced funding for addressing poverty over the decades.
Kent Smetters, faculty director of the Penn Wharton Budget Model at the University of Pennsylvania, said in an email that decreasing incomes and flat poverty numbers were not inconsistent if incomes were generally falling for people above the poverty line.
However, Smetters said he had a hunch the data wasn’t showing the full picture.
Incomes may in fact not be falling because the survey estimates did not include total compensation benefits, Smetters cautioned, and over time there has been a bigger shift toward benefits, such as health care.
“Total compensation has generally been increasing over time, just not as fast on the lower compensation end,” he added.
Gladstein agreed. She noted the income figures were one-year estimates, drawn from a smaller sample size than the Decennial Census, and the margin of error for the median household income was plus or minus $1,379.
“You have to look at this over time to get the fullest picture,” Gladstein said.
Deana Gamble, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jim Kenney, said in an email said the city received the data Thursday and continues to analyze it to ensure it was “being interpreted correctly.”
“If household income rates are in fact falling we need to better understand the root causes, so working together — city, business, institutions, civic sector, philanthropy — we can determine specific ways to address them moving forward,” Gamble said.
The two biggest keys to addressing poverty, Gamble said, were improving educational opportunities and providing residents with resources to access family-sustaining jobs. The city has pursued policies and programs on these fronts, she noted, including returning the school district to local-control and developing a workforce development strategy.
There were some bright spots in the survey. Among them, the number of children living in poverty in the city declined from 37.3 percent to 31.9 percent.
While the poverty rate for the city’s Black and African American population decreased from 30.8 percent to 27.1 percent, the poverty among Whites went in the other direction: jumping from 17.7 percent to 23.5 percent.
The city was unsure why the White poverty rate rose.
“This is one thing that is very perplexing to us,” Gladstein said, but suggested the ongoing opioid epidemic may be a contributor.
Last year, there were 1,217 overdose deaths in the city, up from 907 in 2016. Blacks accounted for 321 of those overdose deaths, compared to Whites who made up 760, and Hispanics 160.
But some say the city’s approach was falling short.
The poverty figures show Philadelphia does not invest in enough anti-poverty resources — unlike the city’s multi-pronged and well advertised campaign to attract Amazon, said Bill Golderer, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey.
“There’s simply not enough going on in terms of a comprehensive, strategic set of interventions that would lift people out of poverty,” he said. “We need to agree upon a number and a timeline of what we want to see and when.”