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Pennsylvania has experienced a steady uptick in new jobs but the pay that comes with a lot of them hasn’t been enough to push more workers out of poverty or stop them from seeking government aid to eat.
That’s according to a newly released report from the U.S. Census Bureau report that examined poverty, income and food stamp rates. The report, released Thursday, offers a socio-economic snapshot into the households of American families from 2013 to 2017.
Across the nation, state and Lehigh Valley median income rose in both raw money and when adjusted for inflation over that time, which coincided with a post-Great Recession economic boon that is ongoing, Census found. Poverty rates have not changed much while the number of workers, 16 and older, seeking food stamps through the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has exploded.
In many cases, Pennsylvania and parts of the Lehigh Valley are doing worse than the rest of the nation.
“Essentially, we go through a period of economic growth that is nearly unprecedented once the last recession ended and it leaves people behind,” said Alan Jennings, executive director of Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, a nonprofit provider of services to homeless, jobless and low-income residents. “If the poverty rate went up or down a little bit, it means we are not going to make any progress.”
The nation’s gross domestic product — a key indicator of economic health — went up an average of 2.2 percent between 2012 and 2017.
In that time, poverty, which the Census defines by individual and family income levels, fell 2 percent nationally to 14.6 percent. While that is higher than Pennsylvania, the state’s rate didn’t go down. It stayed flat at 13.1 percent (1.6 million children and adults).
Poverty rose 3.1 percent in Lehigh County to 13.3 percent (46,596). It fell 4.2 percent in Northampton County to 9.2 percent (26,583).
Allentown, the largest municipality, and West Easton, one of the smallest, had the highest poverty rates across the two counties.
The state’s overall poverty rates are not moving downward, even though the state is creating new jobs because most of those jobs tend to be in the lower-paying service sectors, said Matthew Knittel, executive director of Legislature’s Independent Fiscal Office.
For example, in the health care sector, a lot of the jobs are home healthcare providers or social workers or in nursing homes, he said.
But, that could change at some point, Knittel added. Demographics show the state’s working-age population is contracting, which eventually should force businesses to pay more money to compete for employees in a smaller workforce, he said.
“Something has to give,” Knittel said.
Across the nation, the median pay, which is the middle point on the pay scale, rose 8.7 percent to $57,652 when adjusted for inflation over five years. That was better than Pennsylvania’s 2 percent median pay raise to $56,951.
But the data hint that the median increased because workers at the top of the pay scale are seeing proportionately faster wage growth. The state’s mean (average) household income is 37 percent higher than the median, and increased 4.2 percent since 2012, more than twice the rate of the median, which is an indicator of growing income inequality.
At $38,522, Allentown also had the lowest median income. Wind Gap was a close second at $41,284. Those are increases of 1.4 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively when adjusted for inflation over the five-year window.
For the first time in the report’s history, Census records showed two Valley municipalities broke the six-figure mark in median salary.
Residents in Lehigh County’s Upper Saucon Township and Northampton County’s Lower Nazareth Township had median pay of $100,993 and $102,545, respectively.
That doesn’t mean everyone in those communities is living comfortably or large.
Upper Saucon saw a 2.1 percent increase in the number of food stamps for recipients who are 16 and older (13,091). Lower Nazareth experienced a minuscule drop to 4,766.
That’s just a small fraction of people seeking help in putting food on the table. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs SNAP, adjusts eligibility rates by the annual cost of living. But those adjustments are too low to fully explain the rise in recipients.
Working-age food stamp recipients increased 10.5 percent nationally to slightly over 15 million. Food stamp rates jumped 17 percent to 648,528 in Pennsylvania.
In Lehigh County, the rate jumped 27 percent to 18,743. The rate of increase was 23 percent to 11,728 in Northampton County.
That food stamp increase shows more workers earning more than the federal poverty rate but still struggling to make ends meet, said Marci Ronald-Lesko, executive vice president of the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley.
“We used to direct our resources to the highest poverty in the community and now we are hearing from people more and more who are in the middle lane,” she said. “The is continuing to widen between haves and have-nots stuck in the middle.”
As the economy improved since 2012, there was an assumption that fewer families would need food stamps or help from food banks, but that didn’t pan out, said Joe Arthur, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, which serves 27 counties. About 6 in 10 families who are served by the food bank are classified as working poor, he said.
“The story is the household,” Arthur said. “Working families with children are relying on us and food assistance. That’s the big change prior to the Great Recession.”