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.