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Reading: America’s Poorest City

By Brittany Foster, Contributing Writer

Pennsylvania is home to Hershey, the Betsy Ross’ house, the Liberty Bell and now the poorest city in America.

Reading, the fifth-largest city in PA, now tops the list of poorest cities in the United States according to the 2010 U.S. Census. It has been steadily climbing since it ranked 23rd in 2000. The poorest city list is determined by the percent of residents living under the poverty level and in Reading that is 41 percent. Reading is now even poorer than Flint, Michigan, the icon of urban poverty.

After the announcement, The New York Times looked at several contributing factors. Education levels in the major Berks County city are exceptionally low. A mere 63 percent of residents have a high school diploma or GED whereas the national average is 85 percent. Reading has also seen a massive expansion in their Hispanic population in the past ten years. Hispanics in Reading have even lower education rates with only 18 percent having some college experience compared to 30 percent of whites and just 44 percent have a high school diploma.

Though lack of education is a serious problem in Reading, residents say that they know of those with Bachelor’s degrees making around 8 dollars an hour and taking temporary work.

Pat Giles, a senior vice president at the United Way of Berks County, said: “It has really started to snowball. We have a growing population of younger, less educated, less skilled people. On top of that you have the economy going upside down.” Social services agencies are stepping up to meet the growing needs with the Greater Berks Food Bank planning to distribute 6 million pounds of food this year when they only had to give out 3.5 million pounds in 2007.

Not only are individuals poor, families are poor as well. Opportunity Home, a facility that provides housing and day care to the homeless say 23 new families in just one month over the summer. The young and uneducated population is facing even bigger problems as they begin to have children.  According to a study by a professor at the University of Wisconsin, 62 percent young fathers are making below $20,000 per year.

2 Responses

  1. It was good to report this story, but some clarification is in order, especially from a Reading resident. Correctly identifying problems is helpful, while exaggerating them is counterproductive, as they result in lower property values and less business investment.

    Being the city with the highest poverty rate is not the same thing as being the “poorest city.” Poverty is measured by the federal government in terms of total income, not the percentage of individuals below the poverty level. It is possible that Reading’s middle and upper class income offsets that of the poor enough not to make Reading the city with the least gross municpal product. Furthermore, the federal government does not account for different costs of living; Reading’s is considerably less than New York’s, for example, which is why many New Yorkers have moved here and why Reading is the “outlet capital.” Also, the poverty rate, which is an arbitrary amount that many would argue is too high, does not include welfare or money earned that is not reported on tax returns.

    Moreover, most people would measure wealth in terms of assets, not income. There is plenty of wealth in Reading, especially in the hands of landlords, as more than half of all housing units are rentals.

    In addition to what the previous poster suggests, tax reform and welfare reform (Reading and Berks are infamous welfare magnets) would help all Pennsylvania cities.

  2. Great report, sad news but not surprising, espcially for a Reading native like me. Even sadder is the state of education in Reading that reads more like a state of emergency.

    Only 37 percent of Reading High School 11th graders reached proficiency in reading – an ‘F’ by any standard. Meanwhile, kids there endured 45 reported acts of violent crime in just one school year, including several asaults on students and staff.

    Poor policies have failed these children and this city – the status quo is simply unacceptable.

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