Kate Lao Shaffner

Keystone Crossroads Reporter

Kate Lao Shaffner was the Keystone Crossroads Reporter for WPSU-FM from 2014-2015. She reports on infrastructure, economic, legal, and financial issues in Pennsylvania with reporters from WHYY (Philadelphia), WITF (Harrisburg), and WESA (Pittsburgh).

Kate began working in public radio as a public affairs intern at WPSU.  She then took a position as an associate producer, contributing feature stories and interviews to Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Take Note. She has received awards for her work from the Pennsylvania Associated Press Broadcasters Association.  Kate also worked with community contributors in the production of WPSU’s This I Believe and BookMark.

Kate earned her Master’s degree from Penn State’s School of International Affairs and her B.A. in English and Intercultural Studies from Houghton College.  

Before moving to State College, she lived in rural Tanzania for two years, where she worked with a university study abroad program. She rode a zip-line across a river to get to work every day.


On a recent weekend stroll at Point State Park, in Pittsburgh, visitors sunned themselves in the grass and along the low walls of the park. The park is a triangle of green at the very place where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers meet to form the Ohio River. At the tip of the Point kids splashed in a fountain, and a rainbow shimmered through the spray. Looking east along the rivers bridges stitched the city together with yellow seams. 

Kate Lao Shaffner/WPSU

The idea of volunteer fire departments originated in Pennsylvania and it's certainly a hallmark of the state: around 90 percent of Pa.'s fire departments are volunteer. But these departments are facing big challenges. Volunteer numbers are down and for many municipalities, funding is an ongoing headache.

A view of downtown Scranton.
Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Underfunded pensions are a problem across the state, but Scranton is in particularly dire straits. As part of Keystone Crossroads' series on underfunded pensions, Kate Lao Shaffner spoke with investigative reporter Terrie Morgan-Besecker. Morgan-Besecker has been covering the Scranton pension crisis for The Times-Tribune in Northeast Pennsylvania.

Kelly Tunney/WPSU

Keystone Crossroads publishes a weekly roundup of links related to Pennsylvania cities. 

It's Friday, which means it's time for our roundup of recommended reading from this week.

Don't miss our TV program: Keystone Crossroads: Bridging our Communities


Kate Lao Shaffner/WPSU

Many Pennsylvania municipalities are already taking steps towards reforming their pension plans. Because municipalities cannot legally break pension obligations already promised, reform usually means changing the pension plans for new employees while older employees' pensions remain intact. So what does that mean? Is the younger generation bearing the brunt of pension reform?

"Set for life"

Courtney and Alex Hayden live in a house just outside the Borough of State College with their two cats.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

As we were reporting on the problem of unfunded pensions in Pennsylvania, it occurred to us to ask: How did pensions come about, anyway? Who ever thought to let people retire and keep paying them after they’ve stopped working? And is the problem of underfunded pensions a recent phenomenon?

Our attempts to answer these questions pointed us to North Carolina State University professor of economics Robert Clark, who wrote "A History of Public Sector Pensions in the United States."

group shot of 2015 Blueprint Communities graduates
Kate Lao Shaffner

What does it take to turn a community around?  Revitalization work is certainly more than just ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Every new bike path, main street project, or historic rehab likely represents stacks of paperwork and years of planning. 

A knockoff of Walker Evans' 1935 photograph from St. Michael’s Cemetery in south Bethlehem looking at the blast furnaces in the distance taken March 11, 2015.
Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

 Keystone Crossroads publishes a weekly roundup of links related to Pennsylvania cities. 

Happy Friday! Here's this week's roundup of recommended reading.

Capitol recap

Capitol Recap is our weekly look at how state government affects cities. This week: Pa.'s billion-dollar pension problem. (Did you know Pennsylvania's two statewide retirement systems for teachers and state workers are the second-worst funded in the country?)

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Meghan Ashlin Rich is a professor of sociology/social justice and women's studies at University of Scranton. Her research involves issues like race, class, and social change in urban neighborhoods. Rich has studied revitalization efforts in Scranton and Baltimore, Maryland. Keystone Crossroads' Kate Lao Shaffner spoke with Rich about Scranton's revival, the advantages of small cities, and whether big city revitalization ideas can work in smaller communities.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Keystone Crossroads publishes a weekly roundup of links related to Pennsylvania cities. 

It's Friday! Here's a roundup of recommended reading from this week.

Budget unveiled

Let's start off with the governor's budget address.


Keystone Crossroads publishes a weekly roundup of links related to Pennsylvania cities. 

Is it Friday already?

It's time for our weekly roundup of city-related reads you may have missed (you know, if you need a break from obsessing over llamas and the white-gold/blue-black dress).

Capitol recap

AP File Photo/Matt Rourke

The Economic Policy Institute and Economic Analysis and Research Network released a report today measuring income growth inequality state by state.

The report looked at Internal Revenue Service pretax income numbers before and after the Great Recession to determine which portion of income earners have benefited the most from recovery.

Credit AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

The National Rifle Association filed suit this week against Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Lancaster, claiming these cities' local gun ordinances defy state law. These lawsuits are made possible by new state legislation that took effect last week.

Kate Lao Shaffner/WPSU

Urban revitalization often brings to mind preservation and rehabilitation—people like the idea of saving old buildings. But the reality is, in Pennsylvania's post-industrial cities, there are many, many buildings that will never be rehabbed.

Sometimes, before you rebuild, you have to tear down—and it helps do to it strategically.

Little Humans book cover, Kate Lao Shaffner and her daughter Anna
Kate Lao Shaffner / WPSU

I’m a huge fan of Humans of New York, Brandon Stanton’s photography project featuring portraits of random New Yorkers. If you haven’t heard of it, here’s the premise: Stanton walks around New York streets and asks strangers if he can take their picture. While he’s at it, he asks them personal questions—and gets some really poignant responses. Once recent shot features a woman who has a sad smile on her face. The caption goes like this: "I constantly worry if I'm doing OK with my boys.

State College’s Borough Council met Monday night to finalize next year’s $25 million dollar budget. The council voted to pass the proposed budget.

State College Borough residents will see about a 30% increase in property taxes next year, from 11.04 mill to 14.4 mill. For a house worth $300,000, that means between a $13 – 20 dollar monthly increase, depending on whether the house has a homestead exclusion.

Kate Lao Shaffner/WPSU


What stops people from being engaged in your community? Perhaps local government meetings aren't held at convenient times. Or people feel like they don't know enough about local issues. Or maybe they don't think they can make a difference.

Whatever the reason, it can be tough to get residents involved in community matters.

Kate Lao Shaffner/WPSU

State College’s Borough Council met last night for a final review of next year’s budget.

The council is poised to adopt a property tax increase of 3.36 mill, which is almost 30% more than the current 11.04 mill. In addition, the proposed budget indicates a 0.25% increase in real estate transfer tax.

George Matysik

It's the time of the year when food is on the mind.

George Matysik was thinking of food—or, to be more specific, the lack of it—when we asked him and others to submit maps depicting "their Pennsylvania" during one of our community forums earlier this year.

NPR's news clock

Did Morning Edition sound different to you today? NPR has changed its "clocks" (the schedule templates stations have to use to time the show's news stories, credits, PSAs, etc.). Some things you might notice are shorter segments, more regular breaks, and more frequent newscasts. There will also be some changes in the All Things Considered lineup. Thanks for your patience as we adjust to the changes!

(Want to learn more about how broadcast clocks work? Check out 99% Invisible's explainer.)

Below the 12th Avenue street sign, another sign says "Blue and White Way."
Kate Lao Shaffner/WPSU

Financially distressed cities have pressing problems, like how to balance the budget. But then there are also issues like building renewal and long-term growth. 

"All of the buildings down here, they all have a really neat look to the outside of them," said Altoona Mayor Matt Pacifico. "But they just need so much work done to them."

It's a common sentiment in Pennsylvania towns that have seen better days. The potential is there, but fixing up the buildings would take some pretty deep pockets.

Kate Lao Shaffner/WPSU

Tom Wolf's victory in Pennsylvania—and the GOP sweep nationwide—may be taking over the headlines today, but in many of Pennsylvania's communities, it's the results of local ballot measures that are big news. Here's a look at a few of these measures, all meant to give citizens a say in how their municipalities should address financial pressures.

Anna Foley/WPSU

In the upcoming election, the citizens of Altoona won't just get to vote for a governor or senator, they'll also decide whether they want to change their current form of local government from Third Class City code to home rulehome rule designation essen

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Here's a scenario many Americans have experienced first hand: You're loaded with debt. Your checking account's near zero. And you need a lot of cash.

What do you do?

Would you sell your car? If you own your house, would you get a home equity loan?

Cashed-strapped cities in Pennsylvania are asking a similar question — specifically: should they lease or sell their assets to balance the budget?

The "new oil"

Altoona Forum
Kate Lao Shaffner/WPSU

Altoona area residents who came to the Keystone Crossroads/WPSU public forum described their hometown with these words:

  • full of promise
  • sad
  • isolated
  • a nice place to raise a family
  • nostalgic (some say to a fault)

And the word "nativism" came up a fair amount. This simultaneous nostalgia, sadness and hope was a common theme in discussions among the 60 people who attended the forum at Penn State Altoona's Devorris Downtown Center on Tuesday evening.

Whitehurst photo from rollingout.com; Gray image by Kate Lao Shaffner/WPSU

In August, Terrell Jones, Penn State’s Vice Provost for Educational Equity and a well-known expert on diversity issues, passed away after a bout with cancer. Marcus Whitehurst, who worked with Jones for many years, was appointed the Acting Vice Provost for Educational Equity. We talked with Whitehurst about the legacy that Jones left behind for Penn State, diversity and equity issues, and Terrell Jones as a mentor. For the second half of our show, we talked to Penn State Senior Vice President for Finance and Business David Gray about Penn State health care.

Kate Lao Shaffner

Pennsylvania has more local governments than any other state except Texas and Illinois. There are some downsides to this, including the inefficiency and expense of duplicated services, and the potential for competition among municipalities.

Peter Ter
University of Florida

In 1983, a civil war broke out in the Northern African country of Sudan, which is just south of Egypt.  And it went on for more than twenty years--with conflicts persisting to this day. We'll talk with Peter Ter, one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan," about his memories of war and his new life in the United States.


Outdoor Cafe
AP file Photo/Natacha Pisarenko

"Five Questions with ..." is a regular Keystone Crossroads feature where we seek to glean wisdom and ideas from some of Pennsylvania's top urban thinkers and doers. Todd Erdley is the president and CEO of Videon in State College.

Q: What amenity or service that you've seen in your travels to other places do you wish you could bring back to your community?

People walking down State College street
Kate Lao Shaffner

State College's Highlands residents are used to sounds of partying on weekend nights. The neighborhood borders Penn State's University Park campus and downtown. It's made up of fraternities and apartment buildings, but also single-family homes ranging from grand stone and brick historic mansions to more modest mid-century houses. The residents are quite the mix—college students, retired professors, and young families all call the Highlands home.

But it's not hard to tell who lives where.