On Dec. 6, residents of affluent Fox Chapel and other nearby communities served hearty homemade soup to 80 residents of Sharpsburg, some of whom had not had a hot meal in weeks.
The monthly Neighborhood Table is meant not just to fill empty bellies but also to search for long-lasting ways to redress a growing national problem: Household incomes are falling at the bottom of the income scale, stagnating in the middle and rising at the top.
“We should care when somebody who is working hard and being responsible cannot provide for themselves because their income is not sufficient,” said the Rev. Tom Parkinson, the event’s organizer.
In Pennsylvania, household incomes in the bottom 20 percent dropped nearly 8 percent during the decade leading up to the 2007 recession, while the richest five percent of the population gained more than 11 percent, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data reported last month by the Economic Policy Institute. The study tracked changes in the distribution of income in five income levels.
The greatest income inequality in the state was in Philadelphia and Allegheny County from 2009 to 2011, according to recently compiled Census estimates that measure the gap between richest and poorest.
The chasm between rich and poor can be seen near Pittsburgh in the boroughs of Fox Chapel and Sharpsburg, a wealthy bedroom community and its economically struggling neighbor.
Sharpsburg is not the most distressed enclave in the region. That distinction, based on household income, would go to Rankin and to other Mon Valley towns devastated by the decline of the steel industry.
Sharpsburg is limping along, but its Main Street still has life. There are few boarded up storefronts. Residents still walk to shops and even to work, or catch one of two buses to nearby shopping districts. Every month the town issues a couple of new business permits, said borough secretary Jan Barbus, and the town loses about one business every six months.
“Five years ago things were on a decline,” she said. “My sense is that we’re moving forward.”
The feeble economic pulse gives hope and raises questions about whether Sharpsburg can be revitalized.
Neighbors with a difference
Fox Chapel, population 5,245, is in the hills above the Allegheny Valley Expressway, eight miles northeast of the Golden Triangle. Mansions on large lots are surrounded by manicured lawns and forested hills.
There are no businesses. Large estates are interspersed with churches, country clubs and private schools. The borough maintains 295 acres for walking trails and bird watching and the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania is headquartered at the Beechwood Farms nature preserve.
Some Fox Chapel family fortunes were forged three miles away in Sharpsburg, population 3,432. Henry J. Heinz began bottling horseradish in his family’s Sharpsburg kitchen in 1869, and, later, H.J. Heinz glass jars were made in the town.
Sharpsburg is squeezed between the Allegheny River and Allegheny Valley Expressway and is bisected by railroad tracks. Heavy trucks rumble through town. Tidy wood-framed houses sit next to factories and warehouses.
Fox Chapel is the second wealthiest town in Pennsylvania, with an average household income of $285,122 and a median house value of $531,100. Almost every home is owned by its occupants, according to estimates based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
Sharpsburg’s average income is $40,042, the typical house is worth $68,000, and more than half of the homes are rentals.
Fox Chapel is home to doctors and lawyers and managers. Sharpsburg is where construction laborers, auto mechanics and truck drivers live. No one uses food stamps in Fox Chapel and the poverty level is 6.1 percent, according to Census estimates. More than one-fourth of Sharpsburg households rely on food stamps and the poverty level is 22.9 percent.
People have always tended to segregate themselves by economic class, according to Lowell Taylor, professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University. What’s new is that the income gap is widening and the sorting is getting more extreme.
Education as a theme
Sharpsburg residents attending the Neighborhood Table did not appear bitter about the contrast with their wealthy neighbors.
“There’s nothing wrong with Fox Chapel,” said a 62-year-old unemployed maintenance worker who rents a room in Sharpsburg and declined to give his name. “They earned it, they deserve it,” he said as he ate with a couple of buddies. “All I’m looking for is a job, so I can pay my rent and have money in my pocket.”
The monthly dinner is organized by Faith United Methodist Church of Fox Chapel. The congregation has raised more than $300,000 for programs. It hasn’t quite figured out how to use the money yet.
That’s where the Neighborhood Table fits in. The church isn’t just feeding the hungry. The volunteers are talking with residents to understand how, as Pastor Parkinson said, “to get at the root problem.”
Education is emerging as a central theme. Among Sharpsburg adults, 13 percent have received a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to Census estimates. That’s less than half of the national and state rates and one-sixth of educational attainment in Fox Chapel, where 78.8 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Fox Chapel’s economy compared with Sharpsburg’s
Sharpsburg resident Donna Moore, 61, said at the dinner that she dropped out of Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh in 11th grade and eventually earned a G.E.D. “Now I’m struggling. It’s not easy without an education.”
Church members have discovered a startling statistic. Three of every four children in Sharpsburg live in single-parent households. That’s more than twice the rate of state and U.S. estimates and nearly seven times higher than Fox Chapel.
Parkinson said children from single-parent homes get less supervision, less help with homework, and take part in fewer extracurricular activities. “That increases the likelihood that they end up working in minimum-wage jobs.”
Sharpsburg children have an advantage that families in most distressed towns can’t provide. Their town is part of the highly regarded Fox Chapel Area School District, giving them access to schools that most low income and even many middle-class students can only dream of.
Families have moved to Sharpsburg, Blawnox and Aspinwall- just to be in the Fox Chapel school district, said Sharpsburg’s Barbus.
The church is thinking about leveraging the educational advantage with an after-school tutoring program, or by giving scholarships to its Fox Hill Preschool, according to church trustee Bob Amsler, a retired business executive from Harmar.
Education programs, beginning at age 3, can make a difference in the long run, said Dr. Taylor, the CMU economist. “Part of the answer centers on building human capital … on giving people the skills to compete in the modern economy.”
Low- and middle-income households also are being whipsawed by broader economic forces. Jobs that don’t require a lot of training and can’t easily be done by computers, like driving trucks and laying carpet, are still available but don’t pay much.
High-paying professions, like medicine, law, and management, require a lot of training and problem-solving skills and also are not easily replaced with technology. They are thriving.
“We live in a society where we want to reward work,” said Mark Price, a labor economist for Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg. “But this is a society that, increasingly, at the bottom and even at the middle, has trouble rewarding work. If these trends continue they will undermine the ethic that people can improve their lot in life and give their kids opportunities.”
Pennsylvania’s minimum wage of $7.25 “buys less goods and services than it did in the 1980s,” said Price, who advocates raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation.
Taylor said increasing the minimum wage could help, but it’s not a long-term solution, and it carries the risk of pricing some workers out of their jobs.
Hope for Sharpsburg?
Can Sharpsburg rejuvenate its economy and create better jobs for its people?
It can be done, according to Stephen McKnight, a vice president of Fourth Economy Consulting, a Pittsburgh-based economic development shop. Towns that create a sense of place, or character, can stimulate economic activity. The fixes do not have to be extravagant. Walkable neighborhoods, good parks and historical preservation can make a difference.
He said community leaders must figure out how the town fits into the regional economy and identify its advantages.
Sharpsburg is exploiting the same advantage that spawned industry a hundred years ago, the Allegheny River. State and county money was used to build a boat ramp at 13th Street and the Allegheny River, and the town is developing a riverfront park and working with groups to expand the Three Rivers Heritage Trail.
Opening up access to the river and the trails can attract people to Sharpsburg, McKnight said, particularly younger people who are making more use of bicycles for commuting.
“Access to river trails allows folks to seriously live within the larger area and commute to work by bike,” he said. “That’s good strategy.”
He said better housing is critical. Two-thirds of the houses and apartments in Sharpsburg were built before 1940. People who want to live near the river and use the trails also want houses with modern amenities.
He cautioned that real change can take a generation to take hold. It requires a lot of local people agreeing on a plan and keeping the momentum going for many years.
“There is nothing better,” McKnight said, “than having the people living in your town begin the economic resurgence.”
Parkinson’s congregation is concentrating on small-scale solutions driven by a sense of individual moral responsibility.
“Part of our vision is to bring Fox Chapel and Sharpsburg together,” the pastor said. Something happens when you bring people together at a table to laugh and talk and eat.
“You see that a lot of them have the same aspirations and hopes and the same fears and worries. Some of these folks tonight wouldn’t have a hot meal otherwise. And we’re fed by it. Our souls are fed by it.”
Reach Bill Heltzel at 412-315-0265 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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