In December, I had plenty of time for reflection while sitting at a pew at the Deliverance Evangelical Church for the funeral service for T. Milton Street. Milton’s spirit was omnipresent.
So many stories. But one struck me. Back in the mid-70s, the Ford Administration sought to consolidate a slew of Housing and Urban Development funding streams into a more decentralized approach enabling local decision-making to allocate block grants. The program was called CDBG — Community Development Block Grants. Street had to launch a fight for minority business owners to get in on the action — even though support for minority-owned businesses was embedded in the program’s legislative purpose.
The truth is, reducing poverty and inequality is something to which Philadelphia’s power structure has paid a great deal of lip service. Promises made. Priorities defined. Conferences convened. Statements issued. New programs built into City budgets.
But has anything really changed at scale?
From the Pew Charitable Trust’s 2017 study: “… from 1970 to 2016 … Philadelphia’s poverty rate rose by 10.3 percent…while the nation’s poverty rate was essentially unchanged.” From the U.S. Census, while living in the high-cost market, median household income in Philadelphia was $12,000 lower than for the rest of the state. In recent years the inequality gaps in the city have only widened and are gargantuan.
These metrics only scratch the surface of the extent of poverty and its insidious impact on nearly 500,000 of our fellow citizens. Pick any metric that intersects the life of folks living at 135 percent of the poverty rate or below, and we’re performing poorly. Of course, those living with this level of income — defined as a family of four subsisting on $24,500 per year — are faring much worse.
The expansion of black political power, while impressive and important, seems not to have made much of a dent. From John White, Sr. to Charlie Bowser. From Bill Gray to Wilson Goode. From John Street to Darrell Clarke. From Ethel Allen to Joanna McClinton. Look around. The African-American community has acquired considerable power. But that power has consistently failed to reverse the growing impoverishment of Philadelphians.
All of the 2023 Mayoral candidates have expressed their intention to make poverty and inequality central tenets of their governance. All of them have called our opportunity and wealth gaps critical.
The truth is reducing poverty and inequality is something to which Philadelphia’s power structure has paid a great deal of lip service. Promises made. Priorities defined. Conferences convened. Statements issued. New programs built into City budgets. But has anything really changed at scale?
To attack and reverse the radical inequality long rampant in the city will require a strategy with an equally radical commitment to growing the economy and tax base of the city. That kind of change requires a committed and powerfully persuasive mayor who can bring communities, business, labor, non-profits, philanthropy and politicians together to collaborate on, and own, common goals.
Some pointed questions about how each candidate will address poverty and inequality need to be asked:
- Might we use the City’s zoning, planning, licensing, inspecting and other development regulatory approval processes to make the construction site workforces more aligned with City demographics? Seventy-two percent of all construction jobs in the city are filled by White workers, many of them suburbanites. Fixing this may take some investment, planning, and time, but would represent a radical departure from our willingness to look the other way.
- What is the plan to get private and non-profit procurement practices to create more opportunities for city-based minority-owned companies, notably African American, to win bids and to earn the non-bid work? Perhaps the Economy League’s efforts to increase purchasing by the city’s eds and meds can provide a useful model to contract with Black-owned businesses. Time will tell.
- With more than 26 percent of all real estate in the city in tax-exempt status, what can be done to transfer some of that City support for tax-exempt property owners into an infusion of new resources to reduce inequality?
Is it any surprise that 90,000 mostly African American Democrats who voted in the 2018 midterms skipped the more recent one? These dropouts have no stake in elections.
- Recreational cannabis is coming. Medical cannabis has been a wealth creator for private equity. What will the mayor do to ensure that when opportunities like these arise, prosperity is shared, not denied?
- We’ve made improvements to recreation, but where is the human infrastructure to coach the kids, organize the leagues, find the sponsors? What plan does the next mayor have to energize the non-profit and corporate communities to infuse adult influence and mentoring in places where its absence is devastating?
- Violence, family disintegration, poverty, poor health, and substance abuse have left a sizable number of our citizens traumatized and suffering, without counselors, services or intervention. We face a mental health crisis, one that has touched nearly every family and community. Pretending someone else is going to take this on is delusional. Is this recognized as an issue? How do our candidates think about and approach this challenge?
- When in mathematics, only a quarter of public-school students and in reading only a third are performing at grade level, something is seriously off the rails. We are producing generations of citizens whose future is bleak and whose life options are severely limited. This has been going on for decades. Money does matter or Lower Merion wouldn’t be spending $13,100 more per student than we do. Over the K-12 years, that math translates to an investment in each child of $170,000 more than we make in Philadelphia’s kids. Are we simply going to blame Harrisburg or is the next mayor ready to come to grips with these disparities?
- There is little question that the 2023 mayoral candidates will seek to outflank each other in addressing gun violence. But what if the programs and initiatives — intervention with high-risk individuals, community policing, more cops on the beat, stop and frisk, and so on — fail to make a dent on the more than 2,000 shootings and 500 homicides Philadelphia experienced in 2022? Do we just throw up our hands? And what if these solutions do work and the number of homicides and gunshot victims plummets? What’s next?
Is there a plan?
In either case, inequality and the poverty it begets drives most every one of the major issues confronting our city, including and especially the epidemic of gun violence. Our embrace of and preference for incrementalism, of this program or that organization, hasn’t much worked. Strong African-American leadership, given mandates to exercise power, hasn’t delivered the hoped-for change.
It feels like a Milton Street moment, a moment that demands thoughtful strategy and smart tactics deployed to change minds, hearts and behavior.
We live in a city where very little power exists beyond the second floor of City Hall. But in the nooks and crannies of our civic landscape, however much of that low-voltage power still exists, needs to be harnessed. The next mayor will need to move the city to a future where prosperity is shared and inequality is aggressively tackled.
Who has a plan for that?
Sam Katz is a documentary filmmaker whose work has focused on the history of Philadelphia. He spent his business career in municipal and project finance and venture capital. He served as Chair of the PICA Board. Sam was a mayoral candidate in 1991, 1999 and 2003. His latest film, Gradually, Then Suddenly: The Bankruptcy of Detroit, was the 2021 Winner of the Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film.
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