Big Data Visualization, Spring 2017

Is the Middle Class Left Out in Pennsylvania?

A Look at Middle Class Housing Burden in the Keystone State

By Emily Long, Danya Littlefield and Phoebe Holtzman

Starting with the Great Recession and increasing with the 2016 Presidential Election, people across the United States started to realize that large parts of the US were being left out of political and social narratives.

Across the US, wages are increasing at a much lower rate than housing costs are. More households are cost burdened, spending a greater percent of their total income on housing, whether that is rent or a mortgage, taxes, insurance, and utilities.

With a large middle class, a history as a successful rustbelt state, and home to an increasingly polarized rural and urban population, Pennsylvania is a state that epitomizes these 21st century tensions.

Is the middle class in Pennsylvania becoming more vulnerable over time, and if so, could this explain why such polarizing tensions exist in a once booming state? Here we examine the Pennsylvania middle class over the past ten years.

Who is in the Middle Class?

Households are middle-income if they earn between two-thirds and double the median annual income, controlled by household size and year.


What is Housing Burden?


Housing burden is a metric often used to determine what housing support the most vulnerable households should receive from the government.

But how is the Pennsylvania middle class faring without the support of the government safety net? Are middle-income renters and homeowners experiencing different levels of housing cost burden across the state? Are a greater percentage of middle class households in rural areas experiencing housing burdens than those in urban areas?

Where are middle-income renters and homeowners burdened by housing costs across Pennsylvania over the past ten years?

In 2005, no matter where you were in Pennsylvania, at least 27% of middle-income renters and 17% of middle-income homeowners were housing cost burdened.

In 2010, burden was more widespread. Many areas saw the highest rates of housing cost-burden in 2010. While in 2015, many areas saw a decline in the percentage of households with cost-burden, households in eastern Pennsylvania continued to experience greater cost burden than those in the rest of the state, both homeowners and renters alike.

Looking at Pennsylvania over time also reveals that the distribution of housing cost burden is becoming more of an urban issue. Between 2005 and 2010, percent of cost-burdened middle-income renter households in the city of Philadelphia increased from 57% to 60%, and remained at that level in 2015.

Where are middle-income renters and homeowners severely burdened by housing costs across Pennsylvania over the past ten years?

Homeowners who are considered severely burdened spend at least 50% of their household income on housing. Overall, a smaller percentage of households are burdened at this level. Interestingly, the percentage of middle-income households who are severely burdened is not equally distributed across Pennsylvania, and are increasingly concentrated around urban areas over time.

Overall, how many households are burdened in Pennsylvannia, and does this vary between homeowners and renters over time?

A majority of households in Pennsylvania are middle-income and homeowning. Over the past ten years, the homeowning middle class is shrinking while the renting middle class grows.

After a peak in 2010, the total number of burdened middle class households is falling. While the number of burdened homeowning households is shrinking, the number of burdened renting households is growing, and the overall number of renting households is growing as well. From 2005 to 2015, there was a 17% increase in the number of middle class renting households experiencing housing cost burden. We suspect this reflects the country-wide trend of middle class homeowners downsizing or shifting to rental units, while rents continue to rise relative to inflation and wages.

Today in Pennsylvania, are burdened households concentrated in some areas more than others?

Here we see the distribution of all burdened households across the state in 2015, revealing that burden is generally concentrated around urban areas. While most urban areas have a higher number of burdened renting households, the non-urban areas with high burden rates have a higher number of burdened homeowning households.

Take Monroe County, a semi-rural area where 45% of the middle-income households are housing cost burdened in 2015. In Monroe, there are more than twice as many burdened homeowning households than burdened renting households. Another interesting case is the suburban Bucks County, with the second highest number of burdened households in the state, there are roughly 50% more burdened homeowning households than renting households.

The distributional effects of housing cost burden over time should guide Harrisburg policymakers in their efforts to support Pennsylvanians as the state urbanizes and the middle class experiences new vulnerabilities.

A note on definitions: we use the following definitions for housing cost burden and severe housing cost burden. Housing cost burdened households spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs, including rent, mortgage, taxes, insurance, and utilities. Severely cost burdened households spend more than 50% of their income on housing costs. A note on PUMAs: PUMAs are US Census units with at least 100,000 people in each, and are made up of census blocks or counties. Thus, larger PUMAs are more rural encompassing a cluster of counties, and smaller PUMAs are more urban and a subsection of a county. PUMS data are raw, individual household records, so we can use it to identify varying levels of burden for a particular income group. While PUMAs are not units of governance, Pennsylvania is a highly centralized state with most housing-related policy decisions made in Harrisburg anyway.
Sources: the data in these visualizations came from the US Census American Community Survey (ACS) Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) for 2005, 2010, and 2015. All data was analyzed by the authors. The methodology used for determining middle-income households came from the Pew Research Center.
contact the authors
Emily Long at | Phoebe Holtzman at | Danya Littlefield at