Once-aspirational Philadelphia suburbs struggle with poverty

Middle schoolers in the William Penn School District after school in Darby, Pa. (NCR photo/Vinnie Rotondaro)

Suburban Philadelphia — Editor's note: The following is the first installment in an occasional series looking at poverty in America.

Six months from now, Pope Francis will visit Philadelphia during his highly anticipated trip to the United States. It is reasonable to expect that he'll address the issue of poverty -- an appropriate theme given that a whopping 28 percent of Philadelphians live below the poverty line, the worst rate of the 10 largest U.S. cities.

But if Francis is interested in casting a light on American poverty, he'd do well to take a trip to the Philadelphia suburbs.

Last year, the Brookings Institution reported that suburban poverty grew by 66 percent between the years 2000 to 2013, more than twice the rate of urban poverty.

Community leaders in the economically patchy areas of Delaware and Montgomery Counties in Pennsylvania insist that the Philadelphia suburbs provide one of the most jarring examples of this counterintuitive trend.

For decades, these suburbs were seen as places of stability and opportunity, aspirational communities that defined what middle-class American life was supposed to be about.

That is no longer the case.

"We're seeing [poorer] people flee Philadelphia, and people with money move in and gentrify those areas," said Tom Southard, interim director of the Wolfington Center, which "fosters community-based learning through Catholic social teaching" at Cabrini College in Radnor Township, Pa.

"We're seeing a change in demographics in the suburbs. A huge number of undocumented immigrants," Southard said. Some Philadelphians say, " 'Our goal is to improve this city. We want to make it a stronger place, and if we get the poor people out, into the suburbs, we'll be okay,' " he said.

"When Pope Francis talks about the 'globalization of indifference,' " Southard said, "I like to think he doesn't only mean globally. I like to think he also means in a community -- that we can really be indifferent to those who are not like us, to those who don't live like us -- and I think that's what we're seeing in the Philadelphia suburbs."

But indifference doesn't stop at Philly's city limits, says Nicholas Rademacher, an associate professor of religion at Cabrini. Rademacher facilitates a partnership between the school and a homeless outreach center located in Norristown, a struggling, urbanized municipality that serves as the seat of Montgomery County.

Many in the Norristown center grew up in the suburbs themselves, he said. Some even come from communities like Bryn Mawr and Haverford, historically "bubbles of wealth and security." But "whether it was an addiction, or losing a job, or a medical condition and not having insurance," they now find themselves "left behind."

To be sure, homelessness provides but an extreme example of the kind of hardship that is affecting the Philadelphia suburbs. Daily reality tends to be more mundane, if equally complicated, community leaders say, oftentimes made intractable by forces out of most residents' control. A stressed-out tax base. Crumbling infrastructure. Failing schools. Policies that reward wealth while penalizing poverty. A history of racial tension. An atmosphere of transience and decline.

School inequality

"What's the first thing parents look at when they move into a community?" asked the Rev. Rohan Hepkins, mayor of Yeadon, a small, struggling borough with a population of 11,400 in Delaware County. "The schools," he said.

Hepkins, who is also pastor of the nondenominational Chapel of the Good Shepherd, called Yeadon "a great community." But it's had its problems, he said.

"Yeadon used to have its own shoe store," Hepkins said. "We had our own hardware store. A florist. We had a movie theater."

The borough also had its own high school. But after the state of Pennsylvania forced Yeadon and five neighboring boroughs (some well-off, others less so) to merge into a single school district, "the school system went down."

According to Hepkins, white flight resulted in "a mass exodus."

"When I moved here in 1982, Yeadon was 85 percent white, 15 percent black," he said. "Now it's reversed. It's about 85 percent, 90 percent black, 10 to 15 percent white. A total inversion."

He added, "They took their wealth with them."

These days, even middle-class blacks are leaving "because of the poor school system," he said.

Now, "Yeadon is blighted, left to lower-income folks from Philadelphia and immigrants," Hepkins said.

When it comes to schools, Joseph Bruni, current superintendent of the William Penn School District, says that much of the problem revolves around the question of funding.

"There's no commercial tax base here," Bruni said. "These are all residential communities, so the weight from financing education comes primarily from real estate owners."

It's a "heavy burden," Bruni said.

"We have about 5,200 kids," he said. "Ninety-six percent of them are African-American in communities that are basically 60/40 when it comes to racial breakdown -- 60 percent white, 40 percent African-American -- which means that the white students that were here, and that still live here, are gone."

Most white students left for private Catholic education, Bruni said.

Meanwhile, "79 percent of our kids are on free or reduced lunch," he said, adding, "We have close to 200 ESL [English as a second language] kids," 96 percent of whom are from West Africa.

In other words, the district pays a high price for its economic and cultural diversity.

To see how this translates into educational inequality, Bruni suggests comparing the amount of money that William Penn is able to spend annually on students to money spent by nearby Lower Merion, one of the wealthiest school districts in the country.

Lower Merion spends approximately $22,000 per pupil annually, Bruni said, while in the William Penn system, "kids are lucky to get $10,000."

Schooling isn't the only way opportunity is being dashed in the Philly suburbs. Consider the placement of Section 8 housing vouchers, says Marlon Millner, a Baptist pastor who serves as councilman-at-large in Norristown.

An estimated 50 percent of all Section 8 housing vouchers in Montgomery County are found in Norristown, he says. Which is ironic, considering that the Section 8 program is intended to promote housing choice and dilute the concentration of poverty found in public housing.

If vouchers are concentrated in economically struggling, low-opportunity areas, folks like Millner say, it defeats the point of the program to begin with.

This ties back into education.

Under the last Pennsylvania governor, Tom Corbett, the policy was that "if you had a school in your district that was failing, and your children went there, you could send your child to another school in another school district," Millner said. "But what happens was this: Maybe I want to send my kids to [a better performing] school district. Well, that district doesn't have to allow it -- they don't have to allow the kids to come over from the adjacent school district. And so, let's say you're living in Norristown with a Section 8 voucher, and you want to move to Plymouth Meeting or Whitemarsh Township or Conshohocken," all wealthier areas with better schools. "Well, you can't afford to live there."

In the grand scheme, Millner said, it isn't possible for wealthier communities to remain isolated from poorer communities, as "all these communities are joined at the hip."

Former mayor of the borough of Lansdowne, Jayne Young, agrees.

Old infrastructure and new regulations lead to high costs, she says. Over time, the inner ring suburbs "sprang up organically," and the approach to linking infrastructure was piecemeal, she said.

Now, communities find themselves constantly spending, Young said, to bring infrastructure up to code, to meet homeowner management mandates, to satisfy water conservation and contamination regulations.

"A lot of the new law comes from the state level or the federal level, and we don't have a choice but to comply," she said.

"We do a lot of Band-Aids, and we do a lot of making do, and that's what you have to do," Young says. "You can't tax your borough into a ghost town."

Young, along with many of the other community leaders interviewed for this story, works with a group called Building One Pennsylvania, which advocates for revised state and federal policy.

Janis Risch, who spearheaded the Building One effort in Pennsylvania but has since left the group, tries to put the Philly suburbs problems into perspective.

"If you're an older community with a low tax base, then you're going to have a much harder time funding schools," she said. "And if in that same community, federal or county governments have decided to locate low-income housing, well, now you've added another challenge. And if the EPA has developed regulations mandating that you make extremely expensive upgrades to sewer and water infrastructure, even though water does not respect geographic boundaries, well, you've added another on top of that."

Risch said, "These policies tend to penalize diverse communities."

Little boxes

For an even bigger picture, the Building One community looks to David Rusk, former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M. Former and founding president of the national group Building One America, Rusk advocates for "regional" thinking when addressing the needs of suburban communities.

A major part of the problem in the Philly suburbs, Rusk said, is found in the fragmentation of local government.

In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, there exist hundreds upon hundreds of municipalities and boroughs outside of Philadelphia, Rusk said, "and all these groups are supposed to be doing comprehensive land use planning and zoning, which they often do without any reference to who's around them."

Across the country, he said, government can be broken down into "little" or "big" boxes -- "little," like the Philly area, or "big" like Montgomery County, Md., which comprises 507 square miles of governing power.

Just like the Pennsylvania suburbs, Maryland's Montgomery County has some wealthy areas and some less wealthy areas, Rusk says. But it is "accountable to a wider range of people," he said, and it implements an "inclusionary zoning" housing practice -- which mandates that new housing developments include affordable housing, and that the local housing authority purchase a sizable amount of it -- so it is better able mesh its communities at a socioeconomic level.

By contrast, no inclusionary zoning policy exists on the Pennsylvania side of the Philadelphia suburbs, he said.

"The more fragmented a region is into multiple little-box jurisdictions," Rusk says, "the more racially and economically segregated" it tends to be.

In far too many little-box governments, he said, especially the wealthier ones, "there exists a kind of unspoken mission to keep our town, our schools just the way they are for people just like us, whoever 'us' happens to be."

The resulting inability to plan and think and live together has a human toll, the suburban Philly community leaders say.

It means that people feel forced to leave the places they love, says John McKelligott, past president of the William Penn School District.

"I was handing out political literature" in Lansdowne, he said. "It was in the fall, and I saw this guy I used to know from school board meetings. ... He's out mowing his lawn, and I'm handing out literature, and there's a for sale sign up on his house. And when I'm not looking, he takes the for sale sign and puts it on the neighboring property.

"There are attachments here that people value," McKelligott said, "so even if they find their community broken, they're ashamed about breaking ties."

It means that once stable communities now face problems they previously never would have imagined, says David Eckert, pastor of Drexel Hill United Methodist Church in Drexel Hill, Pa.

"We have people in the congregation who go in and out of poverty," he said. "I see what they're dealing with."

It means that average Americans feel unmoored, detached, strung out.

"There used to be a sense in America that there were many places to live and find opportunity," said Millner, the councilman from Norristown. "I think that has been lost, the idea that you can put down roots in your community."

"We've lost that sense as Americans that we can all live together," he said, "and that's part of what's made the inequality in this country so crass and gross.

"People don't want to be around each other anymore."

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is vrotondaro@ncronline.org.]

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