Note: I’m going to start abbreviating the series title to “IIP” and giving each post a unique title. Here’s the introductory post for more information on this series.

Let’s talk income. We know that there are some very large companies in Philadelphia, and that there’s generally very prosperous economic activity. But, where is this wealth going, in terms of income? I can tell you that, within the city boundaries, it is only going to a select few neighborhoods.

Let’s take a look at some some maps generated from the American FactFinder database. I’ve pulled data on incomes in 2016 (five-year estimate) based on census tract.

First, here’s median household income for the whole city.

Philadelphia Income 2016_edited-1
Median household income, 2016 5-year average.

The divide in income between neighborhoods is pretty stark. The river areas near Center City, the far Northwest, and the far Northeast have the highest incomes by far. Additionally, this divide is deepthe highest median household income is more than 12 times the lowest median household income. Note that the median already greatly evens out extremes. Finally, notice how quickly and sharply income changes between neighborhoods. As soon as you step north or west of Center City census tracts, you’re immediately in the areas with the lowest incomes.

Now let’s take a broader look at the region. I’ve pulled census tract data from Philadelphia and the surrounding counties: Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks, Gloucester, Camden, and Burlington.

Philadelphia 2016 5-year average median household income
2016 5-year average, median household income.

As you can see, incomes are considerably higher in the surrounding suburbs than in Philadelphia itself, even when compared to Philadelphia’s wealthiest neighborhoods. From this perspective, the highest median household income is 18.7 times higher than the lowest. We can also see that Camden and Chester have similarly low incomes.

In this second version, I’ve reduced the map to just two income categories in order to emphasize the difference.

Philadelphia 2016 5-year average median household income 2
2016 5-year average, median household income.

Of course, this is a dramatized map, and should be taken with a grain of salt. I just want to show that it is clearly the suburbs and small portions of Philadelphia itself that have higher incomes. As a side note, an interesting finding is that incomes seem to be lower all along the Delaware River, though I’m not sure why.

To help give this information about incomes better perspective, I decided to complement these maps with some others. This first one is the poverty rate by census tract, just with a larger view than in previous posts.

Philadelphia 2016 5-year average poverty rate
Philadelphia 2016 5-year average, percent of all people earning an income under the poverty threshold in the past 12 months.

It comes as no surprise that Philadelphia, Camden, and Chester by far have the highest poverty rates, and the suburbs have incredibly low poverty rates. The difference in poverty rates within Philadelphia is immense, yet even more immense when we take a look at the greater Philadelphia region.

Next, I’ve taken the unemployment rate to see how this compares.

Philadelphia 2016 5-year average unemployment rate
2016 5-year average, unemployment rate.

Unemployment rates are, as we would expect, very high within Philadelphia, and highest in North and West Philadelphia. I was especially surprised to find that they are as high as 75%. I was also surprised to find that almost every region has some considerable unemployment, even if not nearly as high as within Philadelphia.

Next, I was curious about the significance of commuters. In my last post, I showed that there are some very large companies within Philadelphia that must be employing lots of people. Some portion of those people are earning higher incomes, so where are they? We can see from income data that they are most likely within the wealthier neighborhoods of the city and in the surrounding suburbs, but it doesn’t make it certain. That’s why data on commuters interests me. Moreover, data on commuters could show us interesting information about income tax in Philadelphia, which would greatly affect government services.

We all hear about how thousands commute into the city every day for work, then return to their homes in the suburbs. But I wanted something more than just anecdotal evidence from traffic jams I hear about, so I pulled the census data.

Unfortunately, I found out that this one is tricky. The best data I could find was buried within information about Metropolitan Statistical Areas. These are, as far as I understand, greater metropolitan areas, just with formalized boundaries for the census. Each one has a “principal city”, which is the economic center of the region. Obviously this would be Philadelphia for the greater Philadelphia region, although it looks like the census considers this to be Philadelphia and Camden combined.

The data I found is broken down by every combination of people living in the principal city, outside of the principal city, working in the principal city, and outside the principal city, among other categories. The first map I’ve shown is the number of people living outside of the principal city, but working in the principal city—so, commuters! One unfortunate bit is that it does not show percentages, only numbers. Each county seems to have about 800 to 1,600 people. I think this map still gives a general idea of how many people are commuting into the city and from where, but it is not perfect.

Philadelphia 2016 5-year average number working in principal city
2016 5-year average, number of people working in principle city but not living there.

The map shows that almost every surrounding region has at least a couple hundred people commuting into Philadelphia for work, which is presumably a large percentage of each county. It also shows that the immediately surrounding regions have the most commuters, which is no surprise.

This next map is the opposite. It is the number of people living in the principle city, but working outside of the principle city—basically, reverse commuters.

Philadelphia 2016 5-year average working outside principal city
2016 5-year average, number of people living in principle city and working outside of principle city.

I was incredibly surprised to find that there are a significant amount of reverse commuters. I’m not sure what the significance of this is, but it should be noted. I wonder where they are working, and why, and who is more likely to work where. But I’m not sure how to find this out.

I did look at county-level data to get an easier total and percentage for commuters. Of these counties, 138,123 were reverse commuters, or 21.6% of the working population. 237,323 people commuted to Philadelphia to work, or 14.8% of the working population. I wonder how these numbers change as you expand to more counties, and whether there’s a deficit or surplus of commuters in Philadelphia.

This article reports that, according to 2013 data, 146,825 people reverse commuted and 253,000 commuted into the city for work. I also highly recommend checking out this blog that has an interactive data visualizer of commuters across the country (which is where the article got its information).


“Why should we care about all of this?,” you might be asking. Good question. In my first two posts, I established that there is a high level of poverty, and that it is very unevenly distributed. In my third post I showed that, despite poor economic conditions for typical families in the city, Philadelphia has an enormous GDP and many very large companies. That left me with the question of how that is possible.

The answer that I propose is that the economic benefits of Philadelphia’s large economy are only going to a select few neighborhoods within the city, and the majority of the surrounding suburbs. The commuter data and regional income data strongly support this, because it is now undeniable that there are large amounts of commuters into the city with very high incomes.

In short, Philadelphia’s economy is not benefiting all Philadelphians—it mostly benefits the suburbs and neighborhoods surrounding Center City.