The Politics of Poverty: Officials grapple with what works and what doesn’t

Originally published by the Philadelphia Tribune on September 30, 2018

By Michael D’Onofrio

Poverty is holding the city back.

“We can never fully achieve the level of great city until we dramatically reduce our poverty rate,” said U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-13.

But current efforts to reduce poverty are falling short.

“It’s clearly not enough,” said state Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-7. “The numbers haven’t changed.”

Poverty in the city has remained at nearly 26 percent for another year — the highest figure among the most populous metropolitan areas in the nation.

African-American and Black poverty remains high, but ticked down from 30.8 percent to 27.1 percent last year as White poverty rose from 17.7 percent to 23.5 percent.

The local, state approach

Philadelphia officials said the key to pulling the city out of long-term poverty is education.

“At the end of the day, it kind of all leads back to education,” said City Council President Darrell Clarke.

“There are jobs being created in this city, but the skill sets of those individuals who happen to live in the city and a lot of parts of the city, some in my council district, don’t have the skill sets.”

Mayor Jim Kenney agreed, describing schools in an email as the “most important tool we have to fight poverty long-term.”

After nearly two decades the city has regained local control of the school district and pledged to pour more than half a billion dollars in new funding into the district over the next five years.

But those investments in education will take years to show results while students remain mired in poverty today.

“If I’m in deep poverty, yes, I’m excited that a child is getting this great education, but how am I going to make sure this great student going to this great school is being well fed in safe housing and all of that?” asked Mastery Charter School-Shoemaker Campus Principal Sharif El-Mekki.

Kenney admitted that city investments in workforce development, job training and education require time to show results.

“These strategies take longer time to bear fruit, but we think they give us the best chance of lowering our poverty rate by helping current residents,” the mayor said.

City officials also are considering other contributing factors of poverty.

“Good, quality housing on the lower end is almost non-existent,” said Kelvin Jeremiah, the executive director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

With approximately 90,000 people on the PHA’s waitlist for affordable housing, applicants wait between 10 and 15 years for a unit.

“There is a desperate need for affordable housing in this city and we do not have the resources to meet the incredible demand,” Jeremiah said.

About more than half of Philadelphians are considered “rent burdened,” or paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing, Jeremiah said. That leaves fewer dollars to dedicate to schools, medical expenses, food and other expenses.

To afford a modest two-bedroom apartment, Jeremiah estimated, an individual needs to make $19.53 an hour, which comes to more than $39,000 a year.

In an effort to address the problem, the City Council and Kenney recently agreed to commit nearly $71 million over the next half decade to fund affordable housing, and financially assist long-term as well as new homeowners.

Hughes called for more aggressive college-degree completion programs, as well as the business community to pay better wages.

“Pay the folks more,” Hughes said. “I shouldn’t have to force a bill to be passed so that these individuals get paid more money.”

The federal approach

The high poverty rate in Philadelphia is too large for the city to handle alone, says U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, D-2.

“When you talk about the level of poverty you’re talking about in Philadelphia, the only place I know you can deal with that is from a national perspective,” Evans said.

Evans said raising the minimum wage to $17-$20 would help those in the city and throughout the country lift themselves out of poverty.

“That would level the playing field,” said Evans, who previously spent nearly four decades as a state representative.

Pennsylvania’s hourly minimum wage remains at the federal level of $7.25 an hour, which comes to approximately $15,080 annually.

For Republican U.S. Senator Pat Toomey, raising the minimum wage is a non-starter, saying the any mandated bump would kill jobs while benefiting few workers, who were typically young and new to the workforce.

“Senator Toomey refuses to support government policies that destroy opportunity and employment for people who are just entering the workforce,” a Toomey spokesman said in an email.

School choice and worker-training programs must be expanded, but the “best anti-poverty program is a strong economy,” the Toomey spokesman said.

He continued: “Faster economy growth means more opportunity, a higher standard of living for workers, and fewer people depending on taxpayer assistance.”

While stock markets are up and national unemployment down to 3.9 percent, Philadelphia’s unemployment rate remains at 9.1 percent. In addition, median household income for a Philadelphians fell last year 4 percent to $39,759, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Access to affordable healthcare, Boyle said, remained a critical part of keeping people out of poverty. In addition, the congressman called for a jobs program to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure.

“Those are the kinds of investments we have to make,” Boyle said.

Overall, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, who is running for re-election in November, said officials must embark on a more unified and bipartisan approach to solving poverty because it affects rural areas and big cities alike.

“We have to stop thinking about thinking about these in a divisive way ….” he said.

The city on its own

Clarke said one hurdle to addressing poverty has been the millions of dollars the city has lost due to cuts in federal and state funding over the years.

“Follow the money,” he said. “You look at the shifting in funding for programs for individuals — low-income, urban cities — then it’s clear that the reduction has gone down dramatically. The simple reality is that’s going to have an impact.”

For example, the city got fewer federal dollars last year for the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, which supports affordable housing. The city received $15.2 million in 2007-08 for the program but $8.1 in 2017-18, according to figures provided by the city. Although, when inflation is taken into account, the federal contribution actually increased.

Working together

Jeremiah, the head of PHA, said all levels of government must be better aligned to comprehensively address the main drivers of poverty.

“Frankly, we need to have a more focused approached on who are most impacted by poverty, and in this city it happens to be Blacks and Browns — Blacks and Hispanics are among the poorest in Philadelphia,” Jeremiah said.

El-Mekki, the principal, stressed a “two generation” approach to addressing poverty in the city.

In addition to investments in primary education for children, El-Mekki said serious career development, training and competitive career counseling for the adults were needed, as well as business reforms.

“We need the doubling down on the social safety and engagement nets: libraries, career and technical supports, and financial literacy in all schools and community centers,” El-Mekki said.

And politicians should be held accountable for reducing generational poverty — just as schools are held accountable for their performance, he added. “If decreasing poverty is a metric that people are held accountable for while they’re in office, we’d likely get different results.”