The City of Reading faces significant challenges: median household incomes have declined nearly 30% since 2000, 40% of residents live in poverty, and rent is largely unaffordable, consuming almost half of renters’ income on average. Yet, despite these challenges, the City is showing signs of vitality and improvement, including growing diversity and youthfulness, improved crime rates, and increased high school graduation.
Reading has seen a dramatic change in its demographics since 2000, with a 78% increase in its share of Hispanics, making it a majority minority city. In 2016, FiveThirtyEight highlighted that Reading’s demographics set it as a front-runner in the demographic shifts happening for the country as a whole, and the contrast that this creates with the rest of Berks County, which is largely white. Reading has also seen growth in its share of children, with more growth in its 0-19 population than the county as a whole. More than half of residents speak a language other than English at home, radically increasing its language diversity.
Reading is a much safer place to live than it was 10 years ago (or even four years ago).
Both violent and property crime rates have decreased by far more than the county as a whole, though it still has a long way to go, with crime rates far above state and county levels. Additionally, Reading now has fewer alcohol-related crashes per resident than the county as a whole.
Residents’ access to the wider world has also improved, with Internet access now available to 79% of residents, up from 62% three years prior, and almost at the overall Berks County level.
Reading has improved high school graduation rates by 9 percentage points since 2011, the biggest increase of any district in the county (though its graduation rate is still the lowest in the county).
This brought the graduation rate to 70%, only slightly below the state’s rate of 76% for economically disadvantaged students. Despite these improvements in graduation rates, only 52% of Reading’s graduates planned to attend a 2- or 4- college after graduation.
Reading has also shown steady increases in the proficiency rates for 11th grade English, with a 6 percentage point increase, the second highest of the Berks County districts.
Reading’s student body can provide particular challenges to educators: 99% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, 19% of students are English language learners and 20% receive special education services.
Reading is making educational progress despite having the lowest level of per-student spending in the county at less than $12,000, less than half the highest spending district.
Reading’s problems are still there. Its 40% poverty rate and decreasing affordability for renters pose significant challenges. But with continued focus and lifting up of strengths, Reading could show the rest of the county, the state and the nation how a small city can meet challenges and improve residents’ lives.