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I Amend My Answer

This week the city released its annual poverty report, and a question on a local TV show made me wonder: Why do we keep coming up short in fighting the city's biggest scourge?

This week the city released its annual poverty report, and a question on a local TV show made me wonder: Why do we keep coming up short in fighting the city's biggest scourge?

A few weeks ago on CNN, author and pundit Jeffrey Toobin was asked a question by Jake Tapper—I don’t even remember what it was. But I certainly remember the response, because Toobin did something you rarely see a TV pundit do. He looked squarely into the camera and said the three words that are anathema to card-carrying members of the chattering class: “I don’t know.”

Well, I’m no Toobin, on any level. And I failed to live up to his example last week on Channel 6’s Sunday morning public affairs show, Inside Story. There I was, along with fellow panelists Brian Tierney, Sharmain Matlock-Turner and Jeff Jubelirer, when the topic turned to the recent Pew report on poverty in Philadelphia, which stunningly lays out just how intractable the problem is.

We’re the most impoverished big city in the nation, with 400,000 of our fellow citizens, including nearly 40 percent of the city’s children, subsisting below the poverty line on just under $20,000 a year for an adult with two children. Perhaps most distressingly, half of all our poor residents are in deep poverty, an adult and two children somehow living on less than $10,000 per year.

My fellow panelists weighed in brilliantly. Tierney got the moral outrage precisely right: “We’re in last place, guys!” he railed. “This is a crisis.” Matlock-Turner talked about the immediate needs of food, clothing and shelter, and focusing the long term emphasis on education and jobs. Jubelirer touched on political accountability, pointing out that until an elected official can lose a job in Philly for not moving the needle on poverty we’ll continue our shoulder-shrugging, status quo ways.

Host Tamala Edwards turned to me. “Larry, your publication focuses a lot on solutions. If you could get the city of Philadelphia to do one thing, what would it be?”

Here’s where I should have channeled Toobin. Instead, I babbled on about social impact bonds and the need to get beyond political leaders and gather stakeholders instead—think academic, business and civic luminaries—to brainstorm together and all own a piece of the problem and solution.

What’s missing from our conversation thus far, as evidenced by the Shared Prosperity report, is any sense of channeling the spirit of FDR, who, when he launched the New Deal, said: “Do something. If it works, do more of it. If it doesn’t, do something else.”

What a smacked ass. It wasn’t so much what I said;  it was more that there I was, playing the self-important talking head, acting like I actually had the answer to curing poverty. So, feeling fraudulent, I spent the last week immersed in poverty literature and talking to those on the front lines of fighting it. And let me tell you: It’s a rabbit hole. I’m not sure any one has the answer. But therein lies an opportunity, for when no one has the answers, the winners tend to be those who say WTF and try new things.

And, boy, do we need a WTF moment when it comes to poverty, folks. Just this week, the city released its annual Shared Prosperity report from the office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity, (CEO), which was created by a much-heralded executive order of then-Mayor Michael Nutter in 2013 amid promises to reduce our poverty rate.

Well, it’s five years in and it’s safe to say little to no progress has been made. Read the report and decide for yourself if it captures the sense of urgency Tierney so rightly calls for. Sure, CEO’s BenePhilly centers, hotline and mobile units have connected some 10,000 people to $10 million in public assistance benefits, and its Financial Empowerment Centers have helped 1,200 people increase their credit score. All good, as far as it goes.

But accomplishments like those read kinda small ball, don’t they? In his letter to open this year’s report, CEO Executive Director Mitchell Little acknowledges that, since his organization’s inception five years ago, the needle on poverty in Philadelphia has barely moved. “This means we must deepen our commitment,” he writes.

Really? It’s about commitment? I suspect just the opposite. I’m pretty sure everyone, from the Mayor on down, is super-committed to eradicating poverty. Maybe what’s really needed, with apologies to Steve Jobs, is to think differently about the problem.

I know enough now to know what I don’t know—which is a helluva lot when it comes to something as complex as poverty. But here are three overarching points I wish the Shared Prosperity report would have touched on—and that I would have been more well-versed on before pretending like I knew it all:

WWNYD?  Like any Eagles fan, I, too, hate the Giants, so I’m loathe to credit New York. But the data doesn’t lie. Under former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, New York City’s 4 percent drop in the poverty rate between 2006 and 2013 made it the only city of the nation’s top 20 to show a decrease. Now, New York is vastly different from Philly for a whole host of reasons; but, when you dive into New York’s turnaround, it’s clear we would have much to learn by asking, “What Would New York Do?”

An eye-opening, four-part series from the American Enterprise Institute chronicles just how much the New York approach challenged conventional wisdom. Bloomberg didn’t approach the problem by simply seeking to expand the safety net. He created a data-driven culture of experimentation, and went around governmental bureaucrats to drive it, tapping Geoffrey Canada, founding director of the Harlem Children’s Zone, and Dick Parsons, then-CEO of Time Warner, to lead the city’s newly created poverty-fighting entity, the Commission for Economic Opportunity. (Yes, another CEO).

The economy-expanding effects of Social Security, Medicare, the G.I. Bill of Rights, and, yes, Obamacare are not only philosophically communitarian—that is, they say to citizens, in effect, “We’re all in this together.”—they’ve long been poverty reducers.

They collected data from all five boroughs and started experimenting. Some attempts, like Family Rewards, a program that paid parents for acts of positive parenting, failed. Others, like Paycheck Plus—a tax credit program that expands Earned Income Tax Credit benefits to low-income single working adults—put an average of $1,400 in the pockets of low-wage workers.

Perhaps most germane to the challenges facing us in Philadelphia, the Bloomberg administration’s approach was a true public/private partnership, with the private sector ponying up $100 million to support innovative measures designed to help poor people achieve economic success. Look at page 34 of Philly’s Shared Prosperity plan for its Board of Directors and you tell me: Where are the business leaders who can get us beyond the same-old, same-old and weigh in on how to fight poverty by actually growing jobs?

Fight Poverty Without Targeting The Impoverished. If there’s one thing that’s become clear now that we’ve seen what turned out to be the significant limits of the War on Poverty, it’s that programs available to all of us—and not just the poor—actually have done more to lift our citizens out of poverty than direct cash assistance to those in poverty. The economy-expanding effects of Social Security, Medicare, the G.I. Bill of Rights, and, yes, Obamacare are not only philosophically communitarian—that is, they say to citizens, in effect, “We’re all in this together.”—they’ve long been poverty reducers.

“Full employment policies, job skills training, comprehensive health care legislation, education reform, child care legislation, and crime and drug abuse prevention programs,” wrote the great African-American sociologist William Julius Wilson in The American Prospect nearly 30 years ago, “these are race-neutral policies likely to begin making a difference for the poor, black and white.”

To be clear, this isn’t an argument for shredding the safety net, but it is a call to think bigger than the safety net. Locally, what could that look like? Hell, I don’t know. But maybe that’s what the city’s best and brightest, convened by the Mayor, could chew on. Maybe it’s some type of public/private partnership citywide around child care, or maybe it’s replicating New York’s CUNY ASAP program, which made community college available and affordable to 17,000 students whose futures had been looking particularly bleak.

It’s Not All About Policy. Any discussion about poverty has to get into the tricky terrain of culture—a place few want to go, because conservatives can sound like they’re denying systemic racism and liberals like they’re just driven by bleeding hearts. It’s time to end talking past one another—which is often done purposefully, for political ends.

“Racism can condition legacies, under which behaviors persist even when what originally caused them has receded or even disappeared,” Columbia University Professor John McWhorter, an African-American conservative, wrote on Vox.com last year, in an essay headlined “Why The War On Poverty Failed—And What To Do Now.” “One speaks the language one grows up hearing, and culture is not different in this regard, walking in lockstep with neither the GNP nor social tensions. This is hardly cause for dismissal of the problems in question; however, it means that changing conditions is often only part of the battle.”

Under former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, New York City’s 4 percent drop in the poverty rate between 2006 and 2013 made it the only city of the nation’s top 20 to show a decrease. Bloomberg didn’t approach the problem by simply seeking to expand the safety net. He created a data-driven culture of experimentation, and went around governmental bureaucrats to drive it.

McWhorter bears out his thesis by citing a case of our very own, the Belmont 112. Remember them? Back in 1987, philanthropist George Weiss “adopted” 112 sixth graders at West Philadelphia’s Belmont Elementary School, guaranteeing them a fully-funded education through college provided they didn’t use drugs, have children out of wedlock, or commit crimes. 

Weiss provided tutors, after-school programs, and counselors. Yet the program yielded as many felons as four-year college graduates (20 each); 45 of them didn’t graduate high school; and more than half of the girls had babies before turning 18. “Obviously, for reasons hardly their fault, the only cultural norms these kids had known affected them profoundly, even with external conditions crafted to nudge them in another direction,” writes McWhorter.

This isn’t to say there’s a poverty gene or to blame those in poverty for their plight. But when the data overwhelmingly shows that, for example, half of all children living in poverty reside in homes headed by single mothers, policymakers have to address it—which is why, early on, Bloomberg said, “Fathers are missing from our strategy to drive down the poverty rate,” and constructed policies designed to bolster the work rate of low-skilled men and to hold them accountable for child support.

Ideas such as these don’t appear in the Philadelphia approach, and nor does any larger, aspirational vision. The numbers don’t lie. We have the worst poverty in the nation—still. And, yet, what’s missing from our conversation thus far, as evidenced by the Shared Prosperity report, is any sense of channeling the spirit of FDR, who, when he launched the New Deal, said: “Do something. If it works, do more of it. If it doesn’t, do something else.”

The Philadelphia Citizen will only publish thoughtful, civil posts. We want to be a communal space. But that doesn’t mean you have a First Amendment right to be an idiot. Send us an insulting, offensive and/or wildly off-topic comment and not only will we refrain from posting it -- we will laugh at you before we hit delete.

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