Census: Reading, Pa., Has Highest Poverty Rate
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
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: 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: 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: 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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