On Pittsburgh’s eastern border lies the suburban city of Penn Hills, the second-largest community in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Penn Hills came of age in the mid-twentieth century as a middle-class bedroom community for workers and managers at the nearby Westinghouse Electric Company. Today, it is still home to Longue Vue, one of the oldest and most exclusive golf clubs in the region, once known as “The Millionaires’ Club.”

With the deterioration of the Pittsburgh region’s industrial base since the 1980s, Penn Hills has shed population and jobs. At the same time, many lower-income African American families have moved to the suburb from poor inner-city Pittsburgh neighborhoods and other declining steel towns hit by even greater economic and social challenges. In 2010, the city’s population had fallen to 42,000, from 58,000 in 1980. And by 2010, one in three residents of Penn Hills was African American, up from one in nine in 1980.

The growing low-income population in Penn Hills faces significant challenges around access to transportation. Some parts of the community are served by just one bus line that comes only a few times in the morning (into the city) and a few times in the late afternoon to early evening (back out of the city). Budget cuts at the Allegheny County Port Authority have left many of Penn Hills’s neighborhoods and residents with limited public transit options, including none on the weekends. Given that one in ten households lacks access to a vehicle, these cuts have left many residents struggling to gain and maintain employment, particularly those working late shifts in the city or trying to get to jobs in neighboring suburbs. Residents must increasingly depend on family members, friends, or neighbors with cars to help them shop for groceries (the closest store is more than two miles from some poor neighborhoods) or get to a doctor’s appointment, stressing already fragile relationships. A trip to get Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits can turn into an all-day affair.

Penn Hills helps illustrate the paradox of suburban poverty. Ideally, the increasing presence of poor residents in the suburbs would signal that more families are able to access better local environments that provide them with a platform for upward mobility. Yet Penn Hills’ low-income residents have limited access to jobs and services, and local school performance on standardized exams is roughly the same as in the city of Pittsburgh. While many of its African American residents moved there from very poor Pittsburgh neighborhoods facing even greater economic and social disadvantage, this suburban community confronts its own set of challenges in connecting its low-income families to opportunity.

DATA POINTS

  • The poverty rate in Penn Hills rose from almost 8 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2008–10.
  • The local unemployment rate, which was historically lower than the city of Pittsburgh’s, now equals and periodically exceeds it. For example, in December 2012, Penn Hills’ unemployment rate stood at 8.2 percent, compared to 7.1 percent in Pittsburgh.