UNIONTOWN, Pa-It is hard to imagine that this picturesque town, with its stately courthouse, charming narrow streets, cozy diners and cluttered antique shops, has anything in common with metropolitan Philadelphia, a bustling city of skyscrapers, nightlife and sports complexes on the opposite end of the state.
Yet rural Fayette County and urban Philadelphia County (the city shares the county’s borders) have Pennsylvania’s highest poverty rates, with Fayette nearing 20 percent and Philadelphia at a staggering 26 percent. In other words, one in five folks in Fayette lives in poverty; in Philly, more than one in four do.
These counties could not be more different: Fayette is overwhelmingly (92 percent) white and rural (less than 176 people per square mile); Philadelphia has a predominating mix of minorities (more than 44 percent black and 12 percent Latino, with 37 percent white) and urban density (more than 11,000 people per square mile).
"When poverty strikes, it doesn’t see rural or urban black or rural white," said Burns Strider, a Democrat strategist who works with rural voters. "Folks have a tendency to associate the problem as an urban issue, but our rural communities are suffering too. You don’t see it because it is not concentrated in the way it is in the city."
Fayette County and Philadelphia share some poverty correlations, according to Bert Rockman, a Purdue University political science professor — namely, "lower educational achievement, the elimination of easily accessed jobs, the decline of key industries, and an intergenerational transfer of impoverishment."
Rockman said the United States has one of the lowest intergenerational levels of social mobility among developed economies.
"People tend to be stuck in place more here than in comparable economies," he said. "So, although Fayette County is mostly white and Philadelphia is majority black and also has significant Latino populations, they both share the same characteristics when it comes to poverty."
Avery Johnson, who runs one of the few Washington lobbying firms that only pushes Congress to help the poor, had personal experience with poverty as a black growing up in West Virginia’s coal hills.
"I’d argue that the rural poor probably have a bigger disadvantage" than those in cities "because there are miles … for them to get to services that can help them," Johnson said.
His firm, Advocates for the Other America, is a rarity on Capitol Hill because the poor are politically invisible, he said. "There are other firms who push for the poor as part of many things they do. This is all we do."
It has been tough to push Congress to do something, he added, because "the poor don’t vote, black or white, so they don’t have clout. They don’t force Washington to pay attention."
"Poverty impacts every single aspect of your life in the ghetto," said Elijah Anderson, a Yale University social sciences professor and author of "Code of the Street," a sometimes heartbreaking study that outlined four years of research into a poor black community of inner-city Philadelphia.
Anderson was very disappointed that, aside from a speech by Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, any mention of poverty was conspicuously absent during the 2012 presidential campaign and at the Democratic National Convention.
"It was terrible," he said. "You have people who are dislocated, the jobs have left, and there is no sense of urgency in Congress and the White House."
Strider, the Democrat strategist, called the entire situation "tragic."
"So often we get on our patriotic pedestal and boast about how we invest our monies in other countries," he said. "It is time to invest at home. We have to have the political fortitude to invest where there is no political strength, in poor neighborhoods and communities."
Purdue’s Rockman said that, while underlying similarities exist between poverty problems in Fayette County and in Philadelphia, race remains an obstacle to seeing them that way. "The bottom line is that politicians need to address the poverty problem as a unit," he said.
Past efforts to do so, such as President Lyndon Johnson’s "Great Society" programs, were not terribly successful. And today’s political system has turned far more out of tune with the problems of the poor and the near-poor than ever before.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Political Reporter