The Philadelphia Tribune: Elected officials strive to drive down poverty rates

Originally published in The Philadelphia Tribune

By Ayana Jones

A group of state and national legislators is striving to combat poverty by taking a multifaceted approach.

U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Pa.), state Sen. Art Haywood (D-4), and state Reps. Jason Dawkins (D-179) and Isabella Fitzgerald (D-203) are working together to address poverty by expanding job and workforce development opportunities, increasing the minimum wage and pushing for criminal justice reform.

Their focus on the issue comes as Philadelphia faces a poverty rate of 26%.

“I think that poverty and its causes, its impasse, its impact and its solutions should be at the forefront of any public discussion as it relates to quality of life,” Fitzgerald said during a conference call with the Tribune.

“It’s a public health and generational crisis, and it requires deliberate measures to overcome.”

The Philadelphia delegation in the state House is fighting against efforts to eliminate the cash assistance program for adults with disabilities, those in treatment for addiction and people fleeing domestic violence. The state House voted on Wednesday to eliminate the program.

“Right now, a lot of our energy has been focused on fighting back some of these very negative and dangerous policy positions put forth by some of our colleagues to ensure that folks don’t have the option of having a leg up to actually get out of poverty and also exacerbating the fact that we are going to continue to allow them to stay in the same condition without any real help from their government,” said Dawkins, who leads the Philadelphia delegation.

Raising the minimum wage

In May, Haywood conducted a poverty listening tour throughout Pennsylvania that stopped in Erie, Lock Haven, McKessport and Philadelphia.

Kendall Alexander, Haywood’s spokeswoman, said the link between people earning low wages and living in poverty was commonly mentioned during the tour.

She said an estimated 85,000 people in Philadelphia are considered working poor and earn less than $20,000 a year.

Bills are moving through the Senate and House that would gradually raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour. Haywood has been advocating for a minimum wage increase.

“What we’ve been doing in our office is we’ve really been fighting on the state side to ensure that we get the minimum wage raised to at least $15 an hour as soon as possible,” Alexander said.

“That will allow people to make over $30,000 [a year] and come out of poverty. That means they won’t necessarily have to rely on state assistance and funds and subsidies to pay for things that should be easy to pay for — child care, gas, food [and] utilities. Right now the living wage is $22 an hour and the minimum wage is $7.25, and that’s just unacceptable.”

Addressing poverty on the national level

Evans addressed how members of Congress are tackling the issue by introducing key pieces of federal legislation.

“We know that minimum wage is a priority at the state level and at the federal level. We are all collectively working on that,” he said.

“What we’ve done at the congressional level is we’ve focused on children.”

Evans highlighted bills moving through Congress that would expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit — two federal programs that have been instrumental in helping to reduce poverty.

In reference to criminal justice reform, he cited the First Step Act, which would pull back punitive mandatory minimum sentences, make 2010 crack sentencing reforms retroactive, expand “good time” credits so that well-behaved inmates can get out of prison a little earlier and create “earned time” credits that encourage inmates to take part in rehabilitative programs for an earlier release.