Reading's poverty rate falls, but new Census numbers a mixed bag for Berks County
Tuesday, December 11th, 2018

This is an excerpt from a Reading Eagle article.

The poverty rate is falling in Reading, even as it remains the same in Berks County as a whole.

In 2012, 37.9 percent of Reading residents were below the poverty line, compared to 13.5 percent of all Berks County residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2012 American Community Survey. By 2017, the city's poverty rate fell to 36.6 percent while the county rate inched up to 13.6 percent.

Both sets of numbers have margins of error that somewhat cloud the actual percentages, but the comparisons do show a decline in the city's poverty rate.

That's according to new numbers released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau in its 2013-17 American Community Survey.

While the new data show detailed economic information down to a micro level - statistics are available for every municipality in the country - Berks County transportation planner Michael Golembiewski warns against putting too much stock in the sample sizes of places with small populations.

Take the case of Mount Penn. The small borough on Reading's eastern edge had a poverty rate of about 12 percent in 2012. That number jumped to 22 percent in the latest census report. But the 2017 figures have a margin of error of plus or minus 10.7 percent, meaning Mount Penn's poverty rate could be 32.7 percent, rivaling Reading's, or it could be 11.3 percent. With a population of fewer than 3,200 people, that percentage swing is huge.

Still, he said the outsized poverty rate for Reading compared with Berks is not a shock.

"It's been documented for many years that poverty is concentrated in Reading, Golembiewski said.

That's the case for many cities in the Northeast. Cities that are surrounded by larger rural areas tend to have a higher proportion of poor residents, he said.

The federal government's poverty threshold is an annual salary of $12,060 for an individual and $24,600 for a family of four.

The city and county saw an increase in households receiving food stamp benefits: from 17,735 in 2012 to 20,994 in Berks County, and from 11,974 to 12,984 in Reading. Even accounting for their respective margins of error, that's an increase for both.

In addition, median household income increased slightly in the county but fell a bit in the city: $29,100 in 2012 (adjusted for 2017 inflation) and $28,755 in 2017.

Jason Brudereck, director of communication for Berks County Community Foundation, called the new report a mixed bag but not terribly surprising.

"We're seeing a reflection of what's happening as people move around the county," he said.

Brudereck hailed the drop in the city's poverty rate, crediting Berks Teens Matter, a local initiative of Co-County Wellness Services, with helping to reduce teen pregnancies over the last five years.

"Poverty rates are closely tied with teen pregnancy rates," he said, noting that from 2012 to 2016, the teen pregnancy rate dropped 37 percent in Pennsylvania and 43 percent in Reading.