Philadelphia is ‘America’s poorest big city.’ Here’s what that actually means

The prevalence of poverty in Philadelphia led to a phrase that may have reached its shelf life as a useful advocacy tool.

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Siti lives in South Philadelphia with her husband and two children. They have trouble keeping pace with inflation, she says. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

This story is from Young, Unhoused and Unseen, a podcast production from WHYY News and Temple University’s Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting.

Find it on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Poverty is as synonymous with the city of Philadelphia as the Liberty Bell.

The persistence of the problem led to the creation of a phrase as common as the issue itself: Philadelphia is “America’s poorest big city.”

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When data researchers use the term, it has a specific definition. Out of the top 10 most populous cities across the United States, Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate.

“I think Mayor [Jim] Kenney must have said it 40 or 50 or more times. I hear community leaders say it and I would say at this point, the phrase is legendary,” Democratic state Senator Art Haywood said.

He said he’s heard the expression more times than he can count. His district spans across Northwest Philadelphia and the southern tip of Montgomery County.

Haywood said Germantown, which is in his district, is among the poorest neighborhoods in the city — and that the expression has reached its shelf life as a constructive way to advocate for needed policy changes.

“It is not helpful at all whatsoever. I have not found it to be effective in any kind of argument for support. It sounds often just as a routine excuse for current conditions,” Haywood said.

Dr. Stephen Danley, the director of the Center for Urban Research and Education at Rutgers University-Camden, has also heard the phrase many times. His research focuses on how community movements in places like Camden, Philadelphia and New Orleans have resulted in policy changes.

“I would argue that there’s kind of two major dynamics when it comes to this phrase: the poorest, biggest city and one is the nonprofit industrial complex, which has to make a case that the city is in crisis in order to get funding, and that can be a very effective case,” Danley said. “If the goal is as a nonprofit to get foundation funding for dollars into the city to address these issues for that subset that can be effective — and has at times been very effective. Philadelphia sees large funding and has funding internally as well from different foundations.”

The problem, Danley said, is that this can be at odds with some of the structural issues behind why poverty in Philadelphia persists.

“Part of the Philadelphia problem is a segregation problem and a city [versus] suburbs problem. And the problem then with the phrase ‘America’s poorest, largest city,’ is that it reinforces the stigma that causes that type of segregation,” Danley said.

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Siti, who considers herself working class, lives in an apartment in South Philadelphia with her family. When asked how she feels about the phrase that she’s heard far too often, she said she’s feeling “everything.”

“It’s life. We have to fight for it, but we struggle,” Siti said.

From rent and food to the electric bill and surprise costs, Siti said her two children depend on her and her spouse’s incomes to get by. Without insurance, they rely on medical clinics for health care, but Siti said even the cost of medication can be too much to bear. Inflation has kept her up at night as she wonders if they can continue to afford the cost of living.

“I live in an apartment and every year they up the amount of the apartment,” Siti said.

Siti climbing the stairs for the subway
Siti climbs the stairs from the Broad Street subway line. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Octavia Howell, a manager of Pew Charitable Trusts’ research and policy initiative team, said Philadelphia earned the title a while back after Detroit began hemorrhaging a significant portion of its population during its financial freefall.

“One of the things to note about Philadelphia is that it is of the cities that are listed among the nation’s most populous cities, you have newer cities that are vastly expanding like you’re Houston and Phoenix’s and then you have other kind of Rust Belt cities where Philadelphia right now is I think maybe the only city that qualifies as a Rust Belt city where you have these higher rates of poverty and different characteristics,” Howell said.

According to Pew’s research, Philadelphia stands out when compared to other large, impoverished cities. However, the greater Philadelphia region is not poor compared to other similar-sized metropolitan areas in the U.S.

“Our poverty rate, the regional poverty rate, was only significantly higher than San Jose — so that’s Silicon Valley. So really one of the things that is driving poverty in Philadelphia is the extraordinary degree to which the region’s poor are concentrated inside of the city,” Howell said. “This is an older data point, but Philadelphia has only 26% of the region’s residents living inside in the city versus the suburbs, but 51% of the poor are living inside of the city and that gap of 25 percentage points… is among the largest among any region in the country.”

Sabrina Dutton, a single mom who lives in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, categorizes herself as middle class. Dutton works as a clinic manager at a non-surgical regenerative medicine office in King of Prussia.

“It’s cheaper to live in the current area where I’m at knowing that where I work at has a lot more people that have higher wages and even the homes are a lot more pricier on the outside of Philadelphia,” Dutton said.

Sabrina Dutton
Sabrina Dutton works as a clinic manager at a non-surgical regenerative medicine office in King of Prussia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

She said people want to live where they feel comfortable and where their kids can have access to better schools, but she said that can sometimes feel out of reach for Philadelphians.

“Everybody does want to live in a nice home and nice neighborhood, but Philadelphia does not provide it. For me, I’m a single mom for the past 15 years with my 15-year-old son, and I’ve been in a place …  in my life where I’ve worked three jobs or two jobs, and right now I’m just down to one income — just barely making it,” Dutton said.

When Pew examined the demographics and geography of Philadelphia’s poverty issue in 2017, researchers sought to understand why there’s such a high concentration of people experiencing poverty in the city.

Howell boiled it down to more reliable transportation access in Philadelphia, the city’s low housing costs compared to the suburbs, and a significant land use regulation disparity.

“We found that the region’s one of the most highly regulated in the country in terms of land use and those land use regulations can impede the development of affordable housing outside of the region,” Howell said.

What direction is Philadelphia’s poverty rate headed?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services set the poverty level for an individual in 2023 at $14,580. For a family of four, the federal poverty level is $30,000.

“For deep poverty — so those who are 50% of the poverty rate, it’s $15,000 or less annually,” said Katie Martin, the project director for the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia.

Howell said poverty is “sticky,” meaning it doesn’t change quickly. However, it can improve over time.

“Philadelphia had the highest poverty rate in recent years in 2011 at 28.4 percent,” Martin said. “Most recently, as of 2022, we are at [22.7] percent. So what you’re seeing is a gradual decline over time, but still fairly high with more than 20% of Philadelphians living in poverty and about one in 10 Philadelphians living in deep poverty.”

While Philadelphia’s median household income has been rising rapidly, the growth has been largely uneven — according to Martin, there’s a $40,000 difference in the median household income between white non-Hispanic households and Hispanic households in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia’s median household income still pales in comparison to other East Coast cities like Washington, D.C. The nation’s capital had a median household income of roughly $102,722 in 2022, nearly twice that of Philadelphia’s $57,537.

“I think we should be careful about always talking about Philadelphia’s poverty as a negative. Which is to say part of what it means is Philadelphia is still affordable. And if the argument is that, you want to move more toward a New York City or a San Francisco or a Washington, D.C. Those places didn’t address poverty. They just pushed poverty into other areas,” Danley said. “And so we have to pay a little attention to what it means to address poverty in Philadelphia. Does it mean the city brings in more wealthy people or does it mean it’s changing the lives of people who are here and while still providing services, affordable housing, and those types of things?”

He said a city gentrifying itself out of poverty is not progress.

When Pew held focus groups as part of its research, some people experiencing poverty in Philadelphia did not consider themselves poor — despite the city’s title as the poorest big city.

“It wasn’t really a useful framework for them. They did not consider themselves to be experiencing poverty, but they could tell us about the challenges that they were facing in the city or the things that they needed and I think really continuing to have a focus on where we have opportunities to provide services to meet residents’ needs, I think that’s more important than that big moniker. Really getting people’s experience out there is the key,” Martin said.

The stigma associated with poverty has real, tangible effects.

“Calling Philadelphia and focusing on it as a crisis of poverty actually has a real impact on Philadelphians, which is to say there’s plenty of research that says people going through job processes are discriminated against based on their ZIP code and that actively undermines the efforts of people to get out of poverty, if we’ve labeled an area as bad and then they’re discriminated against when they apply for a job out of that area. Stigma isn’t just a touchy-feely thing. It’s an actual barrier to the modern economy for people who bear the weight of that stigma,” Danley said.

A spokesperson for Mayor Cherelle Parker’s administration did not respond to a request for comment.

However, in Parker’s 100-Day Action Plan, her administration plans on tackling housing access in the immediate future and wages as part of a long-term vision.

“In connecting more Philadelphians to employment, we will be laser-focused on quality jobs — with family-sustaining wages, benefits, and a path to economic mobility,” the document read.

Visit Philadelphia, which was created to develop marketing to “enhance residents’ quality of life and civic pride,” also declined to comment. The tourism nonprofit serves as a marketing agency for the region and states on its website that it’s “all about building image, driving visitation, boosting the economy.”

How does Philadelphia’s poverty impact health outcomes?

Philadelphia’s position as a city with a high concentration of poverty comes at a great cost to the health of impacted residents.

“Often when I talk with folks about this topic, the first thing they think about is health insurance or health care and that’s certainly part of the story,” said Dr. Megan Todd, chief epidemiologist at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. “There are very expensive treatments and we have all heard stories about out-of-pocket expenses, even for life-saving drugs like insulin. But at least as important as those factors and I would even say more important are the conditions, the environments, the neighborhoods where we live and work and play.”

These environments can either help or hinder health.

Without access to stable, high-quality housing, Todd said a mold or pest-free house might be out of reach. Removing lead paint might become an afterthought if someone lives on a limited income.

Without access to safe open spaces and parks, Todd said exercise might fall down the list of priorities — and with tobacco companies targeting low-income, Black neighborhoods, the list of health impacts gets lengthier.

“There’s a lot of research showing that your immune system can respond less well for fighting off a disease, if you’re experiencing chronic stress. Chronic stress leads to inflammation in your body, which is a risk factor for heart disease — the number one cause of death in Philadelphia and in the country,” Todd said. “And poverty is associated with a lot of those chronic stresses, the chronic stress of not knowing if you’re going to be able to pay rent at the end of the month really does impact your physical health.”

To combat these issues, Todd said the city offers health clinics and vaccines for low cost or free care, but she said that health issues must be included in all policy conversations.

The fight to increase minimum wage in Pa. continues

Dutton, from Germantown, grew up in Philadelphia’s foster care system. She said she was not prepared as she aged out. Even now, she’s learning on the go, she said.

“So every paycheck that I’m making, I’m playing catch up and the amount that I’m getting paid, I could afford to have a house and afford a mortgage. But because I’m constantly behind bills and just living paycheck to paycheck, it is a struggle,” Dutton said.

Sabrina Dutton looks out the window
Sabrina Dutton works in King of Prussia but lives in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood, where homes are more affordable. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

She doesn’t think this has to be the reality for working and middle-class Philadelphians.

“I know there’s money out there, they have money out there,” Dutton said. “It’s just the city is not utilizing it properly and it’s sad because there are a lot of good people that are out there that are just trying to make ends meet and make the best for themselves and the best for their children.”

Haywood launched a “poverty listening tour” across the Commonwealth in 2019, near the start of his tenure as the Democratic chair of the Health and Human Services Committee in the state senate.

From Erie and Scranton to McKeesport and Philadelphia, Haywood traveled and heard from people struggling to get out of poverty. He left with four takeaways.

“The first challenge is low pay and across all of the round tables and conversations low pay was keeping people in poverty,” Haywood said. “Second thing that people mentioned was access to affordable child care when they needed it for work. Third thing they mentioned was affordable housing and unfortunately had a number of individuals talk about their living in cars and that was actually very depressing and finally was access to public transportation that could get them to and from work in a way that’s affordable.”

Since being elected to the Senate in 2014, Haywood said he’s seen significant progress regarding state funding for affordable housing and more subsidies for childcare.

However, Haywood said there’s been “no real results” in Harrisburg to bolster public transportation.

​​”We’ve got a tremendous battle trying to raise the minimum wage here in Pennsylvania, and we know that low pay is core to folks being in poverty,” Haywood said.

With Republican State Sen. Dan Laughlin joining Democrats in calls to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, Haywood is looking to get back to the negotiating table.

“I believe those negotiations will continue into the spring and so there’s some bipartisanship there, but it hasn’t been enough and we might get over the finish line in the spring,” Haywood said.

As mentioned in the second episode of WHYY News and Temple University’s podcast “Young, Unhoused and Unseen,” homelessness is inextricably linked with poverty — especially “networked poverty.”

According to Marisol Bello, the executive director of the Housing Narrative Lab, if everyone’s support system is facing the same issues — stagnant wages, rising housing costs, and a lack of assistance, the pathway out of poverty becomes a maze. The cycle continues.

Siti said she can’t help but think about a future where she can’t work.

“If one day I’m not working anymore, where are we going to live? I don’t own the house. I don’t have it. If one day I’m sick, who’s going to take care of me?” Siti said. “If I’m not working anymore, what’s going to happen with my kids? How can we pay if they get sick? We don’t have insurance.”

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