To afford a two-bedroom apartment at the median rental rate in Bethlehem, a person would have to work 89 hours a week at minimum wage or earn $18.69 an hour, according to a 2015 study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Throw the unaffordable cost of food, a lack of educational opportunities and a big university into the mix, and it’s no wonder that South Bethlehem is considered the poorer side of town.
Throughout the latter half of the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, Bethlehem’s steel and textile mills brought in waves of immigrants from around the world who came here to escape political and economic problems in their homelands. Most had not received more than a high school education, and Bethlehem was a place that boasted opportunities for manual labor.
The steel mill had its last cast in the blast furnace in 1995, and poverty rose as a result of its downfall. Since then, it has become harder for South Side residents to keep pace with rising costs of living.
Free and reduced lunch statistics are often the best way to calculate the magnitude of poverty in the area. For a student to qualify for reduced lunch, a family of four must earn less than $45,000 a year, and that number drops to $31,000 a year to qualify for free lunch.
In the three schools surrounding Lehigh — Broughal Middle School, Donegan Elementary School and Fountain Hill Elementary School — 89 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch at Broughal, 92 percent are eligible at Donegan and 79 percent are eligible at Fountain Hill, according to the United Way’s website. This means nearly 1,400 children in South Bethlehem come from low income families.
Kimberley Carrell-Smith, a Lehigh history professor and a longtime South Bethlehem resident, is dedicated to analyzing the “why” and “how” behind poverty instead of stating the obvious fact that poverty exists.
“There is this tendency of Lehigh students to come from backgrounds where they are used to living in a pretty homogenous, highly-educated community — upper middle class or perhaps solid middle class — where they have this idea that people are more aspirational from where they come from (compared to the residents of South Bethlehem),” Carrell-Smith said.
According to the American Community Survey of 2014, approximately one in four adults living in South Bethlehem does not have a high school degree. However, residents of the South Side are far from unmotivated. The majority of adults are working but still live at or below the poverty line for a number of reasons, most commonly because wages are relatively low and because a lack of full-time jobs forces individuals to accept part-time positions.
In many cases, a lack of education isn’t to blame for the high poverty rates. As the data from the survey show, seven out of 11 census blocks in South Bethlehem include more college degrees than the Lehigh census block, proving that more people have advanced degrees in the neighborhoods near campus than Lehigh students do.
“It’s important to remember that poverty is systemic,” Carrell-Smith said. “It’s not just something that happens because people behave in a certain way or don’t conform to social norms.”
Alan Jennings, the executive director of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, believes Lehigh has contributed to the poverty in South Bethlehem. Perhaps most concretely is the way in which students are a deterrent to property investment in the neighborhood.
“Who wants to buy a house next to rowdy college students?” Jennings asked. “And if you already have a house next to rowdy college students, who is going to put money into that house when you know you’re not going to sell the house to someone who can afford what you paid for it?”
Jennings said students who grew up in wealthy neighborhoods come to Lehigh and don’t respect the relatively low-quality off-campus houses. The presence of these students simultaneously diminishes the desirability of the properties while also inflating the market because of how much students are willing to pay.
Houses on East Fifth Street are being rented for up to $750 a month per person, a price landlords would not be able to charge low-income families. Jennings said this destroys the possibility of transforming South Bethlehem into a desirable family neighborhood. Families, unlike investors, care about what their houses look like and would be willing to take out the trash, paint the façade and fix structural damages.
Jennings, however, is also confident the university can reverse many of the problems it has caused. In a document he sent to President John Simon, Jennings outlined the importance of Lehigh intervening in the housing market by strategically purchasing the worst houses in the neighborhood, fixing them up and then putting them back on the market for owner occupancy.
Although it may seem like an unconventional plan, the hope is these houses will then raise the property values of neighboring houses. It would give Lehigh the opportunity to capitalize on the phenomenon that the nicest house on the block raises the value of all the other houses. These property renovations also have the potential to pressure nearby landlords to improve the appearance of the houses they own.
Kate Cohen has a few ideas about how Lehigh students specifically can strengthen their community outreach efforts. Cohen is the director of development and communications at New Bethany Ministries, an organization with nine different programs that serve to address the issues of the hungry, homeless, poor and mentally ill throughout the Lehigh Valley and to create opportunities for a secure future for its thousands of clients.
Cohen said there are issues that need to be addressed at the state level before poverty rates can ever truly be lowered, such as the scarcity of affordable housing, the insufficient minimum wage and the unjust criminalization of homelessness and loitering. She also believes, however, in the power Lehigh students can have and thinks the students’ approach must include three essential aspects: engagement with the community, understanding of the experiences of those that New Bethany serves, and education of themselves and others on the reality of hunger and homelessness.
“You get to college, and you get stuck in this silo, and being able to come outside of that and understand the systemic problems that surround you is a huge part of what we (at New Bethany) do,” Cohen said.
Cohen and her colleagues are continually trying to break down stereotypes about homeless people and promote programs that raise community consciousness.
As for immediate steps Lehigh students can take, however, Cohen is always appreciative of donations in any form, especially food. Since New Bethany’s Mollard Hospitality Center serves two free meals a day Monday through Friday, including all major holidays, nearly $70,000 is spent on food every year. In 2015, they served 69,516 meals to 2,080 different individuals.
“I think it’s baffling that in a society that boasts excess, there are so many people that don’t have enough,” Cohen said. “It’s upsetting, and it’s heartbreaking, and it’s frustrating.”
And although there’s clearly work that still needs to be done, Carrell-Smith has noted the ways Lehigh students have contributed positively to the community. By partnering with community schools to create academic and after-school programs, Lehigh students have given children resources that support families holistically. Through programs facilitated by the Community Service Office such as America Reads and America Counts, Lehigh students help to raise reading and math rates among South Bethlehem youth, which consequently results in increased graduation rates.
Carrell-Smith said there’s just one more piece to the puzzle: Talk to people. It’s something that can be achieved through volunteering at New Bethany, tutoring children at Broughal or interacting with off-campus neighbors to establish a peaceful dynamic that increases the quality of life for everyone involved.
“Once you see your neighbor as a person,” Carrell-Smith said, “it’s really hard to point fingers or look down your nose at people and blame them.”