Last week, when the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual poverty data, Mayor Kenney’s initial response was particularly tone deaf, both as a leader and politically. But now there are signs he might be waking up and ready to change his bystander-in-chief persona when it comes to fighting our worst-in-the-nation poverty.
Prefer the audio version of this story? Listen to this article in CitizenCast below:
First, the background. Last week’s report showed that Philadelphia’s poverty rate—an income of all of $21,000 for a family of three—was 24.5 percent, down from 25.7 percent two years prior, the lowest since 2008’s Great Recession. That meant that some 14,000 Philadelphians had been lifted out of poverty the last two years, most of them just barely. At the same time, there was lots to wring our hands over: Our city remains the most impoverished in the nation, with the highest child poverty and deep poverty rates (people living at 50 percent of the poverty rate or below) among big cities.
But why compare 2018 to 2016 data? Turns out, last week’s report included an admission that last year’s data for Philadelphia had been flawed; 2016’s numbers are the last accurate ones we have. Which means we’ve only lifted some 7,000 Philadelphians above the poverty line per year these last two years; at this rate we’ll eradicate poverty by 2076, at the earliest. Uh, go team?
That’s what made the mayor’s response so depressing. Some federal bureaucrat somewhere had made a math error, making a very modest gain seem marginally bigger, thereby playing into a political narrative favorable to the mayor—this being an election year, after all. The mayor saw fit to release a victory lap statement, and the Inquirer played along, with a headline reading “New Federal Report Surprises: Philadelphia Poverty Down, Income Up.”
“This data gives me hope and confidence that our strategies to reduce poverty are making progress on tackling this decades-old, systemic challenge,” the mayor’s statement read. Then came the pro-forma acknowledgment that “poverty is [still] too high” and “we must move faster,” before getting back to claiming credit, Trump-like, for that which deserves no credit: “Since 2016, we have enacted a three-pronged approach to fighting poverty. Our strategies include: stabilizing Philadelphians who need relief right now through housing and other public benefits; helping people remove barriers to employment and gain skills for good-paying jobs; and making long-term investments in quality education to prevent and keep Philadelphians out of intergenerational poverty.”
Let’s be clear: The very modest, almost infinitesimal, gains reflected in this report lag behind all other cities in a national economy that is close to full employment. If Jim Kenney were being truthful—as pained as it would be for liberals to hear—he’d credit Trump’s stimulative tax cuts for at least in part driving whatever local uptick we might be undergoing. Instead, like his arch-nemesis, Mayor Kenney is all about spinning a narrative, nuance be damned. And the narrative he seized on is that we’re winning the local war on poverty.
I immediately heard from three civic leaders who were bemoaning the mayor’s channeling of Bobby McFerrin: Don’t worry, be happy. This was an opportunity for a leader to convene stakeholders and announce a Marshall Plan to take on poverty. Instead, we got Mayor Same-Old, Same-Old.
But something encouraging happened. Taking a mulligan, the mayor penned an op-ed in the Inquirer, pledging to take on poverty: “You have our word,” he wrote. “We are committed to working together to grow our job base and to lift residents out of poverty—for good.”
These sound like three strong signposts for a game-changing War on Philly Poverty: A bold scope, a deeply researched and intentional strategy, and—critically—an ask of us that borrows from JFK: We chose to lessen poverty in Philly not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
In a week’s time, the mayor had found religion. In his first statement, he referred to Growing with Equity: Philadelphia’s Vision for Inclusive Growth, his plan released earlier this year—year three of his mayoralty. It’s Exhibit A in how not to confront poverty in 2019: Too silo’d, too top-down, too incremental. In the op-ed, however, Kenney gives short shrift to his plan and instead strikes a more holistic tone, shouting out civic leaders as partners, among them, Sharmain Matlock-Turner of the Urban Affairs Coalition, Bill Golderer of The United Way, and Jerry Sweeney of Brandywine Realty Trust, arguably the private sector’s leading cheerleader for aggressively growing jobs—as opposed to merely feeding the safety net. That alone provides reason for cautious optimism.
Under The United Way’s aegis, Kenney announced, these and other civic leaders and experts will come together behind a public/private fund that “tests, evaluates, and scales solutions that work with and for residents.”
Golderer is a charismatic frontman, which is just what an ambitious movement needs. To succeed, they’ll first have to define what success looks like, and then avoid the pitfalls that our past thinking has fallen prey to when it comes to the scourge of poverty. Herewith some unsolicited advice:
Don’t Be Afraid To Define Success. The aforementioned Kenney plan is long on rhetoric, but short on measurable—not to mention inspiring—goals and timetables. For example, when it comes to jobs, the stated goal is to “grow the economy to create family-sustaining jobs for all Philadelphians.” Way to go out on a limb, Jimbo. No mention of how many jobs, or what kind of jobs they’d be. (Even when we add jobs, we add the wrong kind: 76 percent of all jobs created locally since 2009 have paid on average $35,000 or less.) When it comes to timetable, apparently we won’t know whether Kenney’s plan was a success or failure for a decade—long after he’s out of office, when he’ll likely be consulting for the Building Trades.
Swing For The Fences. Don’t get me wrong, there are some good ideas in Kenney’s inclusive growth plan, but they all lack in ambition given the size of the problem. A goal of moving 100,000 citizens out of poverty within a decade is a good start, but it’s one that only gets us competitive with peer cities…in a decade. (And even that might be overly optimistic: What if you move 100,000 people of poverty, but, thanks to low growth and high taxes and subpar education, 100,000 others fall into it?)
Establishing a “Business Acceleration Team” that makes it easier to navigate the bureaucracy when opening a local business is fine, but long overdue; where was this idea, or the $5,000 Job Creation Tax Credit, four years ago, when candidate Kenney was calling our poverty rate an “embarrassment”?
In fact, Kenney’s inclusive growth plan follows the trend of his mayoralty: a bloodless hodgepodge of boilerplate programs that, taken together, lack an inspiring vision. It reads like the work product of some nerdy government lifers, as in this inspiring goal: “Partner with the Commonwealth, PIDC, the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia, and others to explore mechanisms for incentivizing the creation of additional lab space and facilities to attract new companies and maintain affordability for emerging firms.” Kinda makes you wanna storm the Bastille, no?
Reject The Kenney Postulate That It’s All About Education. What of Kenney’s argument that, ultimately, education holds the key to lessening poverty? That’s a widely held view, but it’s not only too simplistic, it’s also too conveniently long-term.
“Nobody doubts that a better-educated workforce is more likely to enjoy higher earnings,” writes economist Jared Bernstein, Chief Economist to Vice President Biden during the Obama administration. “But education by itself is a necessary but insufficient antipoverty tool. Yes, poor people absolutely need more education and skill training, but they also need an economic context wherein they can realize the economic returns from their improved human capital.”
That is to say: Educated citizens without competitive markets that provide opportunity are simply better educated poor people. In Kenney’s first term, we’ve heard an awful lot about taxing soda and community schools, but precious little about how to grow jobs and spread opportunity.
That’s why it’s encouraging to hear that the mayor has enlisted the help of Sweeney, a job creator. We need an audacious growth moonshot, complete with specific quarterly and yearly targets for job creation and poverty reduction—with online reporting that tells us whether the city is meeting its goals in real time.
The best way, after all, to take on poverty is to end our denial, admit that any city with a quarter of its population trying to live on $21,000 a year for a family of three is in serious crisis, and just try some sh*t, particularly around growing jobs.
In the past, we’ve covered some of the bold growth ideas that have shown promise elsewhere, from embracing Opportunity Zones to selling off or leveraging city assets, to piloting guaranteed income programs, as in Stockton, California.
Here are a few more. Three years ago, Indianapolis jumpstarted its transition from an older industrial city into a tech hub when the city’s voters approved a ballot measure hiking their own taxes in order to expand local mass transit. Remarkably, the investment was supported by a broad coalition of citizens, including the Chamber of Commerce and social justice activists. All saw how investing in mass transit could bridge gaps and lift all boats.
It’s that kind of communitarian thinking that informs many of the experiments in inclusive growth in other cities, and that we could use here. In Northeast Ohio, for example, job creators, community developers, and regional planners have collaborated on regional “job hubs” that reduce transit barriers for workers and provide employers with a more consistent labor pool. The center/left think tank, Third Way, has proposed a national Opportunity Bank, which would unleash $1 trillion in small business lending over the next decade—an idea Philly ought to steal and localize. After all, in a city that is 40 percent African American, only 2.5 percent of Philadelphia businesses are African American-owned. How game-changing would it be to have a reservoir of intentional and patient capital flowing to inner-city storefronts, driven by an ambitious goal to discover, mentor and invest in African-American entrepreneurship?
State Representative Chris Rabb has talked about the Commonwealth adopting Congressman James Clyburn’s innovative 10-20-30 Plan, which mandates that 10 percent of federal poverty-fighting funds go to communities in which 20 percent of the population have subsisted below the poverty line for 30 years.
But these and other bold ideas won’t ultimately matter if we don’t do some fundamental blocking and tackling. The late Jeremy Nowak, our founding Chairman and author, with Bruce Katz, of The New Localism, used to say that “Implementation is policy.” What he meant is that you can have the best ideas in the world, but if in the delivery of them you are plodding or silo’d or duplicative in service, you are unwittingly doubling down on the status quo.
There is a Poverty Industrial Complex. It is filled with well-meaning folks who have spent years on the front lines, and it’s in desperate need of fresh eyes and new thinking. There is one city that reduced its poverty rate between 2005 and 2013—during the Great Recession—and it was New York under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. They lowered the poverty rate by 4 percent largely by sending teams of innovators and reams of data into the day-to-day functioning of City Hall departments, changing cultures and outcomes.
That’s the inside game Philly needs to play, and there’s nothing in Mayor Kenney’s history to signal he’s capable of such reform. But at least now Golderer and other civic leaders are stepping up to lead the outside game. Local governments can no longer alone effect widespread systemic change; ecosystems do that now.
We’ve only lifted some 7,000 Philadelphians above the poverty line per year these last two years; at this rate we’ll eradicate poverty by 2076, at the earliest. Uh, go team?
That’s why, in Canada, inroads against poverty have been driven not by elected leaders but thanks to the work of Paul Born and the Tamarack Institute, who convened civic stakeholders and got them working together for the greater good, lifting over 200,000 families out of poverty over seven years. Kenney’s plan pays lip service to such collaboration, but it’s the United Way campaign, with the mayor’s imprimatur, that can call all stakeholders together, lock them in a room, and say: “No one leaves until everyone is on the record making real commitments in the fight against poverty.” And then let the brainstorming and team building begin.
Too often, Philadelphia public life is a place where new ideas go to die. How cool would it be to hold a “Solutions Summit” here, a gathering of the presidents of our universities and their smartest minds, foundation leaders, business machers, and everyday citizens to whiteboard a new way to think about the shameful fact that more than a quarter of our fellow citizens can’t make ends meet?
Nowak and Katz call that “horizontal leadership” in their book, and, until this week’s op-ed, it has seemed to be lost on Kenney, who has demonstrated time and again a faith in the ability of cliche-ridden reports from inside City Hall to address our most formidable challenges.
After reading Kenney’s op-ed, I got Golderer on the phone, who is in the process of reimagining The United Way into an organization that takes on inter-generational poverty. His plans are still in development, but it’s clear from talking to him that, when taking on the ever-widening gulf between the haves and have-nots, he’s not wired to match highfalutin rhetoric with small ball action.
“My belief is that people are super cynical about this stuff because they hear proclamations about taking on poverty and then see very little in the way of followup,” he says. “Unless you have a capitalized and comprehensive strategy with deep accountability, it’s just more rhetoric.”
Golderer’s beach reading this summer was not of the light variety. He waded into the history of the Marshall Plan, and sees parallels to Philly’s challenges today. “It was a big, bold initiative that required a ton of study beforehand,” he says. “And it was sacrificial. It required financial sacrifice, and, because success was far from a certainty, reputational sacrifice.”
Hmmm, I say to him: Those sound like three strong signposts for a game-changing War on Philly Poverty: A bold scope, a deeply researched and intentional strategy, and—critically—an ask of us that borrows from JFK: We chose to lessen poverty in Philly not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
The best way, after all, to take on poverty is to end our denial, admit that any city with a quarter of its population trying to live on $21,000 a year for a family of three is in serious crisis, and just try some shit, particularly around growing jobs. Worse comes to worst, you fail, but you fail quickly, and you move on to the next experimental idea. “I laugh when someone asks, ‘What if we fail?’” Golderer says. “As if we’re not failing now.”
That’s the kind of thinking that leads to change. Maybe it no longer matters if that’s the way Jim Kenney thinks.Photo courtesy Michael Stokes / Flickr