Philly Gets Richer, its Suburbs Get Poorer, and the Middle Class… Vanishes?

Latest Census data on incomes in Philly reveal a cloud inside the silver lining.

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Something that hasn’t yet sunk into the regional psyche has surfaced in the local media: Philly is getting richer and its suburbs poorer.

That’s a slight oversimplifcation of the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey, but it accurately captures the general thrust of the trend.

Christopher Sawyer broke down the numbers over on his Philadelinquency blog, and they show that deep poverty — households with incomes at or below 50 percent of the Federal poverty line — fell in the city from 2011 to 2012. On top of that, the ranks of the well off — while still about one-sixth the size of the desperately poor — shot up dramatically over that same year.

Meanwhile, as Inquirer reporter Alfred Lubano noted, the ranks of the desperately poor shot up in the two counties that contain most of the region’s so-called “inner ring” suburbs. In Camden County, New Jersey, deep poverty rose 19 percent from 2011 to 2012; in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, it rose 5 percent — about the same amount by which it fell in Philadelphia.

What these numbers mean, Sawyer suggests, is that the poorest of the poor are pulling up stakes and moving to outlying communities. Certainly the rapid gentrification of poor neighborhoods like Point Breeze and Francisville might lead one to conclude this.

But the profile of one Chester family in Lubano’s report opens up another possibility, one raised by another set of numbers: The middle class may be getting poor in place as well.

Donald Grover and Melissa Zirilli both held jobs once. Now, as Lubano’s story points out, neither do. And with the loss of jobs came a dramatic fall in income that has subtracted one middle-class family from a corner of Chester and added one desperately poor one.

The figures Sawyer posts also reveal that the middle class is having a rough go of it in Philly, too. While those in the middle of the middle – households earning from $50,000 to $74,999 a year — and near its top — those earning from $100,000 to $149,999 — also rose in number in Philly, the lower middle class ($25,000-$49,999) and the just-above-the-middle ($75,000-$99,999) both slipped last year. Overall, the broad middle class — the households earning from $25,000 to $150,000 annually — appears to be barely treading water. (The ranks of the working poor, those earning between $15,000 and $24,999 annually, rose slightly.)

That raises the prospect that Philadelphia might eventually become part of that cohort of cities to which most of our Northeast peers belong: Cities with lots of rich folks, some poor ones, and not much in between.

This certainly has plenty of people anxious in the Northeast, the bastion of that post-World War II middle class. The longtime residents see that bastion eroding (even though immigrants may actually be shoring parts of it up), and in their eyes, the future looks an awful lot like Chester. They’re not totally off base, either: Many of the more working-class parts of the Northeast have indeed gotten poorer much as those “inner ring” suburbs have.

What’s more worrisome, though, is that right now, the policy folks seem not to have a clue about what to do to keep the middle class thriving in Philly. Some, like Councilman Bobby Henon, grasp a piece of the challenge: By making the revival of manufacturing in the city a signature issue, he has recognized that part of the answer lies in creating more good jobs for those who either didn’t or don’t want to go to college. But while it contains lots of ideas for keeping the poor from getting poorer, the biggest of the city’s recent initiatives, “Shared Prosperity,” seems light on the parts that might keep the barely prosperous from slipping down the ladder the way Grover and Zirilli have.

Are tax cuts, that favorite of so many residents, the answer? I’m not that sure about this, at least as far as individual taxes go; the taxes the people in the middle pay may now be approaching city-suburban parity. For businesses, however, it may be a different story. Making it easier for small businesses to establish themselves, grow and flourish in Philly will help both the middle class and the poor — and it won’t be all that bad for the affluent either.

Veteran reporter-editor Sandy Smith has been scribbling away since his youth, when The Kansas City Star hired him as a summer reporting intern  out of high school. Part of the team that launched an award-winning newspaper at Penn and founder of another  at Widener University, he is currently editor-in-chief of the Philadelphia Real Estate Blog and contributes to Philadelphia magazine’s Property blog as well as other local publications.



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  • RightsTough

    Unions and lawsuit happy lawyers will continue to drive business away from Philadelphia until there is tort reform and the Unions come to some sensible middle ground. It will happen! It just won’t happen fast enough to save thousands of family that could be helped NOW!

    There are plenty of educated, motivated people in Philadelphia and nothing will compromise a happy life more than lack of opportunity. Heck, this generation doesn’t want good jobs, they want “meaningful” jobs. But the unions and the “have you been injured” lawyers continue to foster an atmosphere that discourages people to invest in this area!

    I love Philadelphia. It’s my home. But without manufacturing jobs for the people who didn’t go to Wharton to learn how to steal on Wall Street, we are all screwed!

    • joeg

      tort reform???? sorry that is nonsense. if something happened to you and you were limited by this reform what would you do?? disabled, jobless living on SS through no fault of your own. always blame the unions. how about blaming the greedy corporations that created this mess. unions created the middle class. insatiable greed moves these jobs to remote areas of the world where they can pay people a paltry sum and work them to death.

      • RightsTough

        I understand your perspective and we will agree to disagree. Thanks for the feedback Joe!

        • PicklePaul

          Don’t agree with your point-of-view on the so-called evils of the law and unions, but applaud your civil demeanor. That said; the problem is also one of taxes. 400 families in the US now control 8% of the wealth, but pay a much lower percent of their income in taxes, about 15 percent. So, although the right often accuses the left of class warfare, actually the rich are waging this war and winning it. Very sad.

          • RightsTough

            Well stated Paul! Ultimately the only option remaining to pay off these ridiculous deficits (which have been built by donkeys and elephants by the way) is to institute a 90% estate tax on the wealthy. If the 92% ignore race, religion and the other fabricated issues that separate us, we can elect people who will institute term limits, run the lobbyists out of town and act on behalf of the masses instead of the asses. But as long as we are divided by ridiculous petty matters, we will never be able to bring sanity to the Road Show that is DC POLITICS 2013! And that’s the way the 8& want it to stay!

          • PicklePaul

            Hey RightsTough, you hit the nail many other issues. IMO, always follow the money. Estate Taxes. Taxing the wealthy at 15% for the bulk of their income (instead of normal Federal wage tax levels), tax breaks for wealthy corporations with no penalty for outsourcing — these are the big villains.

            But, how do you control this? You must regulate the politicians. Term limits are not effective because each politician is compromised no matter how short the term. You must regulate the ability of corporations and the wealthy to influence our leaders with money. Check out and, if you have the time. I think you’ll like what they’re trying to do.

  • Niel McDowell

    Middle class families need a viable public school system for their kids or they will leave, period. With all its warts, the Philly system had some bright spots that could have been built on. But with the latest manufactured crisis all that’s been called into question. I can tell you there are plenty of young middle-class families with pre-school-age kids making that all-important calculation right now: can we take our chances w/ public schools in the state they’re in? To the extent that suburban districts look safer, the relocation might be the classic one, from city to suburb. But since all PA school districts are under the gun in the current crisis, this may also be a tale of the middle class leaving Pennsylvania.

    • SmarterThanAverage

      Not to make light of the crisis with the Philadelphia schools, but your comment seems to miss the mark of this article: Middle income residents are leaving the City and it appears that their economic situation left them with either limited or no other choice: i.e., Camden, NJ and Chester (Delaware County), PA. Neither of these communities equate to safer or better schools. No one locates to either of these cities out of choice or with any expectation of enjoying traditional, middle class suburban living. Both cities are hell zones.

      • Niel McDowell

        Well, I don’t think genuinely “middle income” people are ending up in Camden & Chester. No offense to those towns, but if you have even modest income you can probably do better than that.

        Middle income families’ economic decision to stay or go is absolutely tied to schools, though – if you can’t afford private school, you have to go where you can rely on the public system.

        • SmarterThanAverage

          That’s true, “middle income” is not winding up in those cities. They’re vanishing, . . . into the poor.