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Philadelphia’s Poverty Problem is Bigger Than You Ever Imagined

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past three years, you’re probably aware that Philadelphia has the unfortunate distinction of being the poorest of the United States’ 10 largest cities.

With 1 in 4 families living below the official poverty line, everyone is looking for answers, including city government. But as we work together to help families access ways out of poverty, we need to remember that the problem is much bigger then what Census data reports.

The current federal poverty guidelines indicate that a family of three should be able to survive on $21,720 per year. This number is the same whether the family lives in Provo, UT or Philadelphia, PA. For much of the country, that’s a laughable amount. In Philadelphia, where the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,650, a family living below the poverty level still spends most of their income on housing. Even an apartment that cost $825 per month would leave just under $1,000 for food, utilities, health insurance, transportation, child care, debt service, education, and all the other costs of living.

It’s clear that when we measure income using the federal poverty rate, the results far underestimate how many people are actually struggling to meet daily needs. To make matters worse, the poverty guidelines act as eligibility criteria for most social safety net programs, so many families find themselves with insufficient earnings to meet their daily needs, but with too much income to qualify for additional support.

Since 1996, University of Washington researcher Diana Pearce has been developing an alternative measure, the Self-Sufficiency Standard, which more accurately reflects what it costs to survive, based on location, family size, and composition. Last month, with funding from New Century Trust and the Women and Girls Foundation, PathWays PA released an updated version of this report for Pennsylvania. The report paints a much bleaker picture of the economic need facing Philadelphia’s families.

While calculations based on the federal poverty guidelines indicate that 25% of Philadelphia families lives in poverty, the Self-Sufficiency Standard shows the actual share of families unable to meet their basic needs is almost twice that much, at 43%.

According to the Standard, a Philadelphia family of three — an adult, a preschooler, and a school-age child — would require over $65,000 (or three times the poverty threshold) in annual income to be self-sufficient. This may seem like a lot, but the Index’s definition of “basic needs” is, in fact, very basic. It includes housing, food, child care, health care, food, public transportation, taxes, and a modest amount for miscellaneous other costs. It does not cover debt service or higher education costs and excludes any extras like eating out,going to summer camp, or, for Philadelphians, even owning a car.

What the Self-Sufficiency Standard shows is that far too many families in Philadelphia struggle just to keep their families fed, sheltered, educated, and healthy. And the reality of structural racism, the wealth and earning gap, and the high costs of poverty mean that families headed by women, families with young children, families of color, and immigrant families bear the brunt of this burden.

This data should be a wake-up call to all of us who care about this issue.

To read more, click here.

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