Combating Poverty In Western Pennsylvania

Dec 4, 2015

Poverty is on the rise in Western Pennsylvania. A new study put out by the Urban Institute in Washington estimates that the number of households below the poverty line has jumped up by 2% since 2012.

Fortunately, there are local groups combating that rise. Essential Pittsburgh’s Paul Guggenheimer sat down with Maxwell King, the president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation, to see why poverty around Pittsburgh is so high and what can be done about it.

King places most of the blame on the ever increasing wage gap, which first began emerging in the 1970s. While the salaries of the richest have increased steadily over time, the minimum wage has not.

“I don’t think anybody thinks that a minimum wage of $7-plus an hour bears any relationship to current reality, but they’re not able to adjust that,” King said.

The Pittsburgh Foundation estimates that a family of four needs to make around $46,000 a year in order to be financially secure. This is 200% more than the federal poverty line of about $24,000.

Unfortunately, falling unemployment rates often “mask” the problem of the minimum wage not being enough, according to King. While more jobs are being created, they’re not paying nearly well enough and many are forced to work multiple jobs just to get by.

King wishes to see the minimum wage moved to $15 an hour, though he doubts that will happen, as well as the implementation of a cost of living adjuster. The adjuster would automatically raise the minimum wage as cost of living went up. While some fear jobs could be lost as a result of a minimum wage increase, King says many studies have proven the impact will be small and manageable.

While wage disparity is a major factor, King said that when it comes to fighting poverty, “there’s no one silver bullet.” A multitude of other factors need to be addressed including better training for jobs, an expansion of the transportation network and improving access to childcare.

Transportation has increasingly become an issue as low income families move out of Pittsburgh to the inner suburbs. King said that 60% of poverty now rests outside the city, a side effect of gentrification. Without the same transport systems like city buses and subways, many poor families are finding it hard to even make it to a job. Of particular concern are the 70% of single mother families that rest below or near the poverty line in Western PA.

Despite this, there is hope. King said the Pittsburgh Foundation has found many companies and organizations are starting to recognize the growing poverty problem. While they recognize it as an issue, many are also seeing it as an opportunity.

“We’re all excited by the new Pittsburgh and the renaissance that we’re in the middle of now,” King said. “Young people are moving here, companies are moving here, it’s very, very exciting but it’s not a success if we leave 30% of the population behind.”

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.