Apr 27, 2022 - News

Experts concerned drop in Pennsylvania's poverty rate is misleading

Share of people with income below poverty level, by county
Data: American Community Survey; Map: Jared Whalen/Axios

Fewer Pennsylvania residents are living in poverty than a decade ago, according to recent census data. But experts in Philadelphia are raising concerns that the data fails to capture people's economic realities.

State of play: 12% of Pennsylvania residents have incomes below the federal poverty line, according to the latest five-year estimates from the 2016–2020 American Community Survey.

  • That's down from 13.5% reported in 2011–2015.

Zoom in: Philadelphia's poverty rate — the highest in the state, at 23% — has been on the decline for a decade.

  • To compare, surrounding counties, such as Montgomery, Chester, Delaware, and Bucks, all have poverty rates in the single digits.

What they're saying: While the numbers suggest improvement, Mike Shields, research director at the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, says he's not quite ready to consider the census finding a win.

  • "Pennsylvania has been a big state for lower-income populations leaving for the Sunbelt for more jobs and opportunities over the past decade," Shields tells Axios.
  • "While poverty has gone down, it hasn't correlated with wage growth."

The census report doesn't consider cost of living by location in its measurement, Shields says, pointing to the large population on the "edge of poverty" who make anywhere from 100% to 150% of the federal poverty rate.

  • "It's semantics. You may have been impoverished last year making the same amount but then next year, you get a $5 raise and now you're out of poverty," he says.

The official poverty line also doesn't take into account federal pandemic relief and the effectiveness of government programs, says Judith Levine, director of the Public Policy Lab at Temple University.

  • She notes a separate Census Bureau report, the 2020 Supplemental Poverty Measure, which evaluates federal relief programs like stimulus checks and expanded unemployment benefits.
  • It credits the stimulus payments for moving 11.7 million Americans out of poverty and the jobless benefits for preventing 5.5 million from falling into it.

The big picture: Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned last week that rising food prices could push millions more people into poverty globally.

Go deeper: How you can help fight hunger at home and in the world

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