Growing up through the cracks

A basketball court on Railroad Way in Rankin. (Michael M. Santiago/Post-Gazette)

When half the kids are in poverty, our fractured towns can offer no future

Reporting Rich Lord
with Kate Giammarise & Christopher Huffaker

January 14, 2019

Narrowed futures. Often, shortened lives. That's what children face when surrounded by poverty. And in southwestern Pennsylvania's fragmented patchwork of cities, boroughs and townships, they're also likely to live in places without the resources to keep them safe, active and healthy.

Nowhere is the inequity clearer than along Route 30, where North Braddock and Forest Hills meet. On the Forest Hills side of that border, the average lifetime is a decade longer than on the other side.

That’s the ultimate effect of concentrated poverty, but by no means the only one.

"Poverty is a sledgehammer,” said Jamie L. Hanson, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Psychology who studies the effects of poverty on the brain. “It hits at so many different places in people’s lives, from disrupting and challenging family situations, to kind of these larger-scale stressful experiences in your community, to maybe not having all of the economic resources, and these things then interact.”

The unhealthy habits, chronic diseases and violence spawned by concentrated poverty create what he calls “a toxic context for kids and families.”

Combine that with ineffective government, and the toxic cycle becomes difficult to break.

The U.S. child poverty rate is 20 percent, and Allegheny County’s is 17 percent. But there are seven Allegheny County municipalities in which half of the kids live in poverty: North Braddock, Mount Oliver, Rankin, Duquesne, McKeesport, Clairton and Wilmerding. They’ve got more than their fair share of kids and human needs. They’re short on stable, educated residents and starved for the funds needed to keep kids safe and healthy. Neighboring counties have very different communities with the same root problem: A majority of those under 18 are poor.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, today and throughout this year, will explore the data tying childhood deprivation to a host of other problems, and delve into a dozen communities in which half of the kids live in poverty. Reporters and photographers will visit with families doing their best in difficult surroundings, explore the causes and effects, and search for solutions.

Explore the data



You might be surprised at the number of kids here.

In the typical Allegheny County municipality, 20 percent of residents are under 18.

In Duquesne and Rankin, it’s 30 percent -- basically tying them (with wealthy Fox Chapel and Edgeworth) for the highest concentrations of youth in the county.

The seven places in which half of the kids are in poverty are home to just 3.6 percent of the county’s population, but 4.4 percent of its youth.

Percentage of each municipality's population that is under 18

20% Clairton
21.1% McKeesport
22.9% Wilmerding
25.3% North Braddock
25.5% Mount Oliver
29.8% Rankin
30.5% Duquesne

Come in closer, and you’ll see kids of every hue.

No doubt about it -- African American kids are more likely to be in poverty than are white kids. But the places with very high child poverty aren’t monochromatic.

They range from Rankin, where 86 percent of kids are black, to Wilmerding, where 56 percent are white, per the Census. Duquesne and McKeesport are home to meaningful numbers of Latino children, and Mt. Oliver has some Asian kids. Go to Armstrong, Fayette and Westmoreland counties -- as we'll do in coming months -- and you'll find a whiter shade of poor.

What you’re not hearing: “My neighbor went to college, so I can, too.”

The places with the highest child poverty rates have some of the lowest college participation rates. That means kids aren’t seeing many parents or neighbors who have put in the applications, filled out the financial aid forms and walked on to campus as students.

Brentwood and Shaler are typical of Allegheny County -- three out of five adults attended at least some college. But in all seven very high child poverty communities, it's around two out of five.

The percent of adults who attended any college in Wilmerding, Rankin, Duquesne, Mount Oliver, North Braddock, McKeesport, and Clairton is 43% percent.

Meanwhile, Fox Chapel, Edgeworth, Rosslyn Farms, Ben Avon Heights, Pine, Marshall and Sewickley Heights have combined populations in which 91 percent of adults attended some college.

Plus, that friendly neighbor might be moving out.

In Wilmerding, just three in 10 homes are owned by the people inside, while three in 10 residents lived somewhere else a year ago. That makes that borough the most transient place in Allegheny County.

Robinson is typical of the county, with 77 percent home ownership and just 13 percent of residents living in a different place than they did a year prior.

All of the very high poverty municipalities have low home ownership and high turnover.

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Human services: High need, quality resources

High child poverty means increased demand for human services. The county puts a lot of effort into addressing health, housing, food and child welfare needs in the seven communities.

"You have the best child welfare system in the commonwealth and one of the best in the country," said Joan Benso, the recently retired president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children. In that area, combined federal, state and county money goes where the need is great.

Odds are, somebody on the block has mental health struggles.

There are 15 Allegheny County municipalities -- including all seven very high child poverty places -- in which more than one in 10 residents got county-funded mental health services in 2017.

That doesn’t count people who got privately funded mental health services.

How does that compare? Ross, Edgewood and Monroeville are typical, in that one in 25 residents got county mental health help. A few well-to-do municipalities are down around one in 100.

The municipalities in which half of children are in poverty are highlighted.

You’re glad that people are getting help -- but the need is so high.

In Duquesne, one-third of residents are getting some kind of help from the Allegheny County Department of Human Services -- the highest rate in the county. Rank the municipalities in terms of the percentage of residents getting county human services, and all seven of the places with very high child poverty are among the top dozen.

Percentage of residents that received some county human services over one year.

North Braddock
Mount Oliver

You hope your grandchild, niece or nephew never needs this kind of help.

In Wilmerding, one in six kids is part of a child welfare case.

Likewise, Clairton, Duquesne, McKeesport, North Braddock and Rankin are among the dozen municipalities with the highest rates of kids getting child welfare services.

Those six are also among the top dozen municipalities in terms of the percent of children removed from their parents’ care.

Local services: Big problems, meager resources

The places in which kids really need protection, and where their neighborhoods beg for investment, have the least property to tax.

"These places are small. If they have high levels of tax delinquency and low tax bases to start with, then they're really out of luck when it comes to dealing with all of these problems,” said Anita Zuberi, a sociology professor at Duquesne University who studies poverty.

Police, public works, playgrounds? There’s hardly any money.

Local government’s jobs include keeping the peace, tearing down abandoned buildings and creating safe spaces to play. But the assessed value of all of the taxable property in Rankin amounts to just $10,364 per person -- the lowest in the county.

The highest is Sewickley Heights, at $340,219 per resident. A typical value per capita is West Mifflin’s $53,000.

The other six very high child poverty municipalities are also among the dozen with the lowest property values per person.

You’re pitching in -- but not very much.

That extra penny of sales tax you pay on most purchases in Allegheny County includes a sliver for the municipalities, and the formula favors the poorest.

Mt. Lebanon’s share of the Regional Asset District tax, for instance, is about $29 per resident. Rankin, by contrast, gets roughly $112 per resident, the highest rate in the county. But that covers less than one-fifth of Rankin’s budget. For the rest, it relies on property and earned income levies -- and there's just not a lot there.

The bell tolls more here.

Bridgeville has a death rate that’s typical of the county as a whole. When adjusted for differences in age, North Braddock's death rate is 26 percent higher, Wilmerding's 30 percent higher, and McKeesport's 41 percent higher than Bridgeville’s. The other communities with very high child poverty are in the same boat: If they have more than their fair share of anything, it’s funerals.

No data available for Mount Oliver and 20 other municipalities.

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau American Communities Survey data released in December 2017, Allegheny County Department of Human Services, Allegheny County Department of Health, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, Allegheny County Treasurer, Allegheny County Department of Real Estate