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Black Exodus: Part One

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

There is bad news nestled in the latest data about the status of African Americans in Philadelphia.  For the first time in 20 years, the number of middle-class blacks has declined.

Much is made of the poverty rate among blacks, but there has always been a sizeable black middle class in the city. For this series of stories, we define middle class as any household with income of $60,000 or more a year.

In 1989 and 1999, 26 percent of black of the black households in Philadelphia fell into the $60,000+ range when their incomes were adjusted for inflation. Between 2005 and 2009, the percentage shrunk to 20 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. This is a significant drop.

Some of that clearly is due to the recession and the pinch it has put on all households. Sharmain Matlock-Turner, head of the Urban Affairs Coalition, said her personal observation is that among black Philadelphians she knows: "I am just seeing people who seem to have less money."

"When I look around me, I am seeing people who are underemployed or unemployed or laid off or delaying marriage or delaying having children," Matlock Turner said.

But there is a mystery in the same data.  While the number of black households earning $60,000+ has declined by about 16,000, the number of households in the next lowest rung on the income ladder ($25,000 to $59,999) increased only by 2,300.

So, the theory that the black middle class got poorer -- by having the father in a two-income family laid off, to use one example -- doesn't explain all of the decline.

Many of these middle-class blacks didn't fall.  They fled.

They left Philadelphia, often for suburban communities just beyond the city line.

"Black suburbanization," a trend that began in the 1990's, has accelerated in the last decade.  It is not just middle-class blacks who are leaving, working-class families are departing as well. For instance, in Upper Darby, where the median house price is $86,000, the number of black residents increased by 14,000 between 2000 and 2010.

Realtors I talked to said many of them were families from West Philadelphia or Cobbs Creek, who bought rowhouses and twins in the eastern section of the township, near the 69th Street shopping district, where houses are even less expensive than the township median.Map No 2.jpg

It's not uncommon, realtors say, for people to move just one step away from where they lived -- from Cedarbrook to Cheltenham; from Cobbs Creek to Upper Darby -- so they can stay close to friends and family. 

(In Part Three of this series, Meldon Jones writes about the changes in Upper Darby, as seen through the eyes of an older white resident.)

Why are blacks leaving the city?  To answer that question, we talked to the experts -- not the demographers or scholars, but the realtors who work in places like Cheltenham and Lansdowne, Abington and Lower Merion Township.  They say it is no big secret what these émigrés are looking for.

As one realtor succinctly put it: "Good schools, less crime, maybe a garden, peace and quiet."

(In Part Two, reporter Mike Mallowe talks to one African-American couple who moved to Havertown and an African-American man whose family moved to Lansdowne a generation ago.)

The numbers reveal the outline of a clear trend, one than began in the 1990's. The number of African Americans living in the four Pennsylvania suburban counties that surround Philadelphia rose 32 percent in the last decade, rising from 194,000 to 256,000, a 62,000 increase.

In the townships and boroughs that touch the Philadelphia border, the increase was higher -- black population in these 10 communities increased by 50 percent, rising from 47,500 to 71,400.

With the exception of Yeadon in Delaware County, which has long been a majority black community, African Americans still are in the minority in these inner ring suburbs, but as the chart that accompanies this story shows, their numbers have risen appreciably in the last 10 years.

Where do they come from? Obviously, not all are from Philadelphia.  Some are migrants from other locales who chose to live in the suburbs through personal choice or necessity -- that's where the jobs are.

But, in the last decade, a number of middle-class neighborhoods in the city have seen their population decline and their Median Household Income drop. In part, this is due to the departure of middle-class families. When we did a series earlier this year about neighborhoods under stress, the list included several of these majority black middle-class neighborhoods. You can view the list here.

(Also, the map than accompanies this article shows the Philadelphia neighborhoods with the highest concentration of black middle-class households.)

This trend is not limited to Philadelphia.  As William H. Frey of the Brookings Institute wrote recently there has been a "breakthrough 'black flight' from cities with large African American populations taking hold" in cities in the north and south.

His conclusion: "The historically sharp racial and ethnic divisions between cities and suburbs in Metropolitan America are more blurred than ever."

Frey also noticed that more Asians and Latinos have settled in the suburbs in a number of cities, a trend also at work in the Philadelphia area.

The movement of blacks and others from the city to the suburbs has profound implications for both. For the city, it means an erosion of its middle class -- what was white flight in decades past has become a multi-racial/ethnic middle-class flight today.

For inner ring suburbs, the sudden infusion of so many racial and ethnic groups means they must grapple with the same change Philadelphia neighborhoods had to deal with 30 and 40 years ago -- most of them without success.

And, while these new arrivals may be middle class, they do not have same degree of wealth or economic stability as their white predecessors, who once owned the same home.  For instance, Median Household Income in Lansdowne, Yeadon and Upper Darby declined in the last 10 years, when adjusted for inflation.

The older suburbs become less wealthy, the city becomes more poor. This sizeable shift in population and wealth is like a slow-motion earthquake, playing out with each home sold. And it is not about to stop.

 

Here is a chart on black movement into the innter ring suburbs:

Black Pop Trends Chart.jpg

 In Part Two, African American emigres past and present explain why they moved from the city.  Reporter Mike Mallowe writes about the phenomenon.

 

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