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Suburban Poverty Report Reveals Richer Picture of Community Needs in Allegheny County

Courtesy Allegheny County Department of Human Services

According to 2010 census data, 7.5 percent of Penn Hills residents live below the federal poverty line. That’s about a third of the rate in Pittsburgh, and a little more than half of the rate in Pennsylvania as a whole.

In McKees Rocks, on the other hand, more than a quarter of residents live below the poverty line.

Based on that data, one might conclude that county services like summer food programs and job training should be concentrated in and around McKees Rocks and not in Penn Hills.

But Erin Dalton, Deputy Director of the Office of Data Analysis, Research and Evaluation at the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, said looking at one type of data, like the poverty rate, at the municipal level can obscure the real needs of families in a particular area.

That’s why Dalton and her team have created the Community Need Index, which takes seven different factors into account.

“The population below 100 percent of the federal poverty level, the population below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, percentage of families headed by single females, percentage of youth without a high school diploma or not enrolled in school, males 16-64 who are not employed or in the labor force, percentage of houses vacant, and percentage of households with no available vehicle,” Dalton said.

The index also looks at census tracts rather than at municipalities as a whole. Dalton said this tactic revealed pockets of high need in every area of the county that were not previously on the department’s radar. For example, the section of Penn Hills bordered by Verona Road on the west and Coal Hollow Road on the east is designated as “distressed” in the county’s analysis, meaning it is one of the highest need areas in the county.

“When we looked at data at the municipality level, because (Penn Hills) is so large, it tended to obscure the real gradation of issues and need there,” Dalton said. “The new … Community Need Index allows us to see a much richer picture. There are still census tracts there of low need, but there are also census tracts of moderate and high need.”

Dalton said the new analysis also tracks changes in community need, to see which areas demonstrate emerging need, deepening need, or stabilization.

“This helps us to identify areas we might be underserving because we weren’t aware they were falling into greater need, and communities that are getting better that we could potentially learn from and understand what’s going well there,” Dalton said.

Other municipalities with distressed areas include Braddock, Carnegie, Clairton, Coraopolis, Duquesne, East Pittsburgh, Homestead, McKees Rocks, McKeesport, Mount Oliver, North Braddock, Rankin, Sharpsburg, West Mifflin, Wilkinsburg, and Wilmerding. The analysis also revealed more than one hundred census tracts throughout the county with levels of moderate to very high need.

The report looked specifically at suburban municipalities, because Dalton said city of Pittsburgh data can often obscure need in other areas of the county. However, the department will soon publish a similar analysis for the city of Pittsburgh.

The report is available to the public on the Allegheny County Department of Human Services website.

Liz Reid began working at WESA in 2013 as a general assignment reporter and weekend host. Since then, she’s worked as the Morning Edition producer, health & science reporter and as an editor.
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