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Growing poverty alarms service providers in Western Pennsylvania

Natasha Lindstrom
| Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, 11:09 p.m.
Robert Nelkin, president and CEO of United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, starts the discussion for the 'People Living (AND WORKING) in Poverty in Southwestern Pennsylvania' breakout session Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, at the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership’s annual summit in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
Robert Nelkin, president and CEO of United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, starts the discussion for the 'People Living (AND WORKING) in Poverty in Southwestern Pennsylvania' breakout session Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, at the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership’s annual summit in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

Even as Pittsburgh neighborhoods such as Downtown, Lawrenceville and East Liberty flourish, more and more people in Western Pennsylvania are not making enough money to meet basic needs.

Low-income households in greater Pittsburgh are on the rise, and data show “remarkable increases” of poverty in Beaver and Westmoreland counties, Michael Yonas, senior program officer for The Pittsburgh Foundation, told nonprofit representatives and regional power brokers Thursday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown.

The trend is alarming human-service providers partly because most government and nonprofit social service hubs center on urban areas, said Maxwell King, president of The Pittsburgh Foundation.

“Poverty is moving out there where the services aren't,” he said. “That's going to be a big problem for us.”

King and United Way of Allegheny County President Robert Nelkin flanked a four-member panel on “People Living (and working) in Poverty in Southwestern Pennsylvania” at the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership's summit, which drew about 1,200 nonprofit, business and public-sector representatives.

The annual event featured sessions ranging from a discussion between city police Chief Cameron McLay and faith-based leaders on improving relations between communities and police to local entrepreneurs explaining how innovative business models can solve social and environmental problems.

“Many more people are vulnerable than ever before,” Nelkin said. “We need to respond to that. I really believe we've got to find some answers that apply broadly across the state.”

Nonprofit leaders should work with legislators to tackle the problem on the policy front, panelists said. They suggested changes such as raising the minimum wage, improving job opportunities for the disabled, reforming sentencing for nonviolent crimes and ensuring poor children automatically qualify for government aid.

In greater Pittsburgh, covering Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties, an estimated 12.3 percent of households — and 17.6 percent of children — lived in poverty in 2012, up from 10.6 percent in 2000 and 12.1 percent in 2010, according to the most recent data compiled by The Urban Institute in Washington.

Those percentages don't include many households that cannot or can barely afford to pay bills and provide for their families, said King.

“The federal definition of poverty is a joke,” he said.

The 2015 poverty level is at $11,770 for an individual or $24,250 for a family of four.

Thursday's session on poverty focused on challenges confronting households that make up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line. The speakers said that threshold represents what it takes to meet basic needs. Just over 28 percent of Allegheny County residents fall into that broader category, an Urban Institute analysis shows.

“Let's talk about real people who are struggling, and let's talk about how we can help them,” Nelkin said.

Many households live in poverty because of joblessness or underemployment, but a variety of other factors contribute to the problem — wage gaps, costly child care, a lack of transportation and major life events, such as a major illness or losing a home, Yonas said. Several audience members brought up concerns that high incarceration rates are another major contributor to the “cycle of poverty.”

The vast majority of the region's impoverished families are led by single women, Yonas' compilation of local and U.S. Census data show. Sixteen percent of low-income households are run by married couples and 11.5 percent by single men. Large income gaps persist between blacks and whites, with whites in Allegheny County making a median of $53,900 annually and blacks making a median of $25,900, Yonus said.

“More and more we're seeing younger people,” said Nancy Lee Cochran of Shepherd's Heart, which runs an Uptown drop-in center for the homeless and struggling veterans. “I'm really concerned about that new face of poverty and the children that often come with them.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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