Census: Reading, Pa., Has Highest Poverty Rate

Melissa Block speaks with Reading, Pa., Mayor Thomas McMahon about the recent U.S. Census Poverty Report that ranks Reading as the city with the highest rate of residents living in poverty.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

It's a distinction no city would want. Reading, Pennsylvania, has the highest poverty rate of any U.S. city with a population above 65,000. In Reading, 41.3 percent of people live below the poverty line. That's according to new census data.

It's a number that weighs heavily on Reading's mayor, Thomas McMahon, who joins me now. Welcome to the program, Mayor McMahon.

THOMAS MCMAHON: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Ten years ago, as I understand it, Reading had the 32nd highest poverty rate in the country. Now, it's the highest. How do you explain that? What's happened over the last decade?

MCMAHON: Well, one of the reasons certainly is the large out-migration of the middle class and the influx of Hispanic population, which we know that, in the Hispanic population, that the education level is not up to the same level as, you know, to Anglo or Asian classes, for example.

At the same time, with that, we have lost a lot more jobs similar to older industrial Eastern cities. And the challenge has been, when large companies have left, where people have made very good wages and taken thousands of jobs gone south, that we struggle just like every other city does to try to bring in companies that might bring in 200 jobs at the most and maybe only pay minimum wage.

BLOCK: Well, what are some of those companies who have left? Are there whole industries, really, that just aren't there in Reading anymore?

MCMAHON: Well, large manufacturing of electronic information systems was Agere Technology and they employed up to 3,000 people. Dana Systems, which also created truck bodies, car bodies, they consolidated their operations to the Midwest. Hershey, which had about 250 people, has moved their folks either to Hershey, Pennsylvania, or down to Mexico. And just recently, we had Baldwin Hardware, which is combined with Stanley Tool, and they've announced that they will be leaving, although there are still some people in the city that are working for them.

BLOCK: Mayor McMahon, you've lived in Reading for what? Forty-five years now. Is that right?

MCMAHON: Yeah. I've been in Reading 45 years and I've seen the changes happen. Cities like Reading, I would say, are like the canary in the mine and it sends a signal to the rest of the country to say we have a problem and it's time to step up and take notice of this.

And the problem that I saw was happening is that, as the businesses moved out of the city and into the malls, the remaining businesses in the city had to leave or shut down. People remaining living in the city that haven't, quote-unquote, "chased the American dream" of moving out, they have stayed and, sometimes we've had to increase property taxes to be able to pay for essential services.

BLOCK: What do you think it would take for Reading, Pennsylvania, to turn a corner for this poverty right now, the highest in the country, to change?

MCMAHON: Well, what we're doing, we're not letting grass grow under our feet. I'll tell you, we're working very, very hard as every other mayor that I know is doing, and right now, we have much too high a dropout rate in our school system. Our attainment level, as has been published, is just eight percent of our residents have a bachelor's degree and the national average is about 28 percent.

As I talk to folks, people will come up to me and ask me for a job and I say, what education do you have? And if they say they haven't completed their high school, then I say, please, go get a GED.

Other areas that I've worked very hard on is literacy programs and I've gone into the schools to try to get more of our citizens involved in helping our students. I think we need apprenticeships, internships at the same time as we need mentoring of the students so that they understand what it means to be a contributing member of society. If we don't do that, we're going to lose that generation.

In thinking of the words that Ben Franklin made when he walked out of the room after signing the Declaration of Independence and a lady asked him, what have you given us, Dr. Franklin? And he said, a republic, if you can keep it. And I often think that a republic is in peril when we don't address this and we don't step up and find that we are, indeed, our brothers' keepers.

BLOCK: Well, Mayor McMahon, thank you for talking with us.

MCMAHON: You're quite welcome.

BLOCK: Thomas McMahon is the mayor of Reading, Pennsylvania, which has the highest poverty rate of any U.S. city with a population above 65,000.

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