Amid Crushing Poverty and Crime, Camden Fights On

Monday, February 11, 2013

By Claudia Vargas, Inquirer Staff Writer

The view outside the Woodland Avenue Presbyterian Church is much nicer than when the Rev. Floyd White arrived in Camden 25 years ago. A new school has replaced the parking lot across the street, and a quaint housing project was built a few blocks down, with suburban-style sidewalks and streetlights.

But the neighborhood improvements can't mask the city's continuing economic downturn. Camden is poorer now than ever before, and long-timers, including White, are skeptical the city has reached rock bottom.

The latest census ranks Camden as the poorest city in the nation, with an estimated 42 percent of its population living in poverty, compared with 36 percent in 2000. The unemployment rate was 18.6 percent in 2012, compared with 8.1 percent nationally.

White's Morgan Village neighborhood has "less money now, less resources," he said. "Just less people working. It's a great challenge."

The recession pushed Camden deeper into poverty. But Camden has been on a downward spiral since the 1969 race riots, when thousands of residents fled to the suburbs.

The Inquirer spoke to national poverty experts, and more than a dozen residents, entrepreneurs, clergy, employees, and volunteers in the city to assess the decline of a city in Philadelphia's shadow.

"I don't think there's an example in American history that has the poverty level that Camden has," said Alan Berube, deputy director at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program in Washington. "It's a question of whether Camden can function again."

What some experts call the city's vicious cycle is kept spinning by high unemployment, failing schools, a depleted tax base, and violence so bad even some longtime advocates are beginning to despair.

Camden closed out 2012 with a record 67 homicides - a per capita rate four times higher than Philadelphia's. In January, Camden's 2011 crime rate landed the city at the top of the CQ Press' annual "most dangerous" city ranking.

Yet amid the poverty and gunfire, 77,000 people still call the city home: single parents struggling to make ends meet; teachers and firefighters who have found affordable housing; and idealistic young professionals, whose presence and investment could turn the city around.

All share the concern of raising a family in a troubled city.

To read the entire article including insight from Center For Family Services Program Director, Judyann McCarthy, click here