Poverty in Reading Reaches New Low

Posted on November 22, 2011 by

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Reading, Pennsylvania, a city of approximately 88,000, has for many years been the urban epicenter of Berks County. With a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, it has also developed into a cultural melting pot of sorts–or tossed salad, if you prefer.

In recent years, however, the city of Reading has become fixed in a full-on battle with growing unemployment and soaring poverty rates.  Just this year,  the town reached a new low in being declared the city with the highest poverty rate in the United States. The poverty rate, determined by the percentage of residents who fall at or below the poverty line for yearly income, puts Reading in the spotlight; the current rate is an astounding 41.3%.

Though Reading has only recently fallen to an all-time low in terms of poverty, economic hardship is not a new issue for the city.

For the past decade, Reading has been struggling to regain its footing after the closing of plants such as Dana Corporation and Lucent Technologies, both critical contributors to the city’s success. The closing of such vital industrial corporations has surely led to an extreme scarcity in job opportunities, exemplified by the estimated 10% decrease in employment from 2000 to 2010.

Barbara Werner, a lifelong Berks County resident and current Director of Community Health Services for Community Prevention Partnership, a non-profit agency based in Reading, has worked in the city for twelve years. She, like many others, was not surprised to hear of Reading’s newest title. She does not, however, see the title as a curse, but rather as a wake-up call for residents of Berks County.

“I think it is an opportunity for the residents of Berks County to become aware of the issues that face those who live in poverty and focus on solutions. I do not see this finding as an opportunity for doom and gloom and feeling overwhelmed but as an avenue to draw attention to the problems that face us,” Werner said.

Werner also believes that the people of Reading are not the only ones at fault.

“Reading is our county seat, and, as residents of the county, we have to take responsibility and accountability for the plight of the poor. The same issues that contribute to poverty exist outside the city in each and every one of our communities. We fool ourselves if we think that poverty only impacts those within the city,” Werner said.

Many informed observers of Reading’s predicament also agree with Werner in placing the blame most heavily upon the lack of education and career preparation in Reading. This argument is strongly supported by the undeniably low percentage of adults with solid educational background; only 63% of Reading’s residents have a high school diploma (compared to 85% nationally) and just 8% have a bachelor’s degree (compared to 28% nationally). The percentage of Hispanics, a group of people who have become an especially large part of Reading’s population in recent years, with high school diplomas fell even farther short at 44%.

While many blame Reading’s poverty on a lack of higher education, others believe that complacency is a key factor.

“I feel that many people in Reading aren’t putting in enough effort and that those individuals hope to have things handed to them rather than providing for themselves,” Fleetwood Senior Zach Mourar said.  Mourar himself was a Reading resident until the age of 11.

Mourar does, on the other hand, acknowledge that this is not the case for all poor residents of Reading. In fact, a lack of quality jobs in the city has driven many college graduates to settle for jobs paying barely above minimum wage in hopes of making ends meet long enough to find more stable employment.

Though the city of Reading may currently be down, it would be unfair to argue that it is out. It can be said with certainty, however, that the coming years will be a true test of not only the character of the city but also of its residents and people of the surrounding area. In cannot yet be known whether or not rapid improvement is in the cards, but it can be guaranteed that Reading has nowhere to go but up.

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