As City Council embarks on another busy session, and what will likely be a budget season starved for revenue, I look back on what this body was able to accomplish for one particular issue that has troubled Philadelphia for decades: poverty.
With a poverty rate still lingering around 25%, Philadelphia continues to be the poorest large city in America. Despite the many efforts made to tackle this complex issue, we haven’t been able to drive that number down far enough, fast enough. So, it was time to try something new and, most importantly, invest smarter.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year to address poverty in the city, but historically those investments have been disconnected and spread thin among hundreds of organizations, government programs, and nonprofits. In 2020, City Council charted a new path forward by making a $10 million initial commitment to establish the Philadelphia Poverty Action Fund, which would for the first time look at issues of poverty through the lens of results. I thank my colleagues for sponsoring these initiatives, namely Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and Council President Darrell L. Clarke. The $10 million commitment will be the right kind of catalyst for a shift in the way we fund, think about, and execute programs that are meant to help our most vulnerable residents.
In previous years, our city has left upwards of $450 million on the table in unclaimed federal money, simply because Philadelphians did not apply for the benefits they qualify for. This kind of new effort prioritizes taking back the money our people deserve and, frankly, need to survive. This endeavor couldn’t happen at a better time. Our families and workers have been crushed this year by the devastating economic realities of COVID-19. We must continue to transfer wealth from those who have benefited from this pandemic to those who need it most during these difficult times. Thankfully, we established a clearer path to make it happen.
The most exciting part of this upcoming $10 million investment is the creation of a new entity with a cross-collaborative approach led by the United Way, city government, philanthropy, and the private sector, all with the goal of investing in partnerships driven by results. Furthermore, this new nonprofit intends to return $13 for every $1 we spend in its initial phase. I’m not aware of any other program in government that gets that kind of rate of return for people. This is an incredible area of opportunity for us and a game changer for our families.
I’m hopeful that our philanthropic community, our business leaders, and our foundations will see this $10 million as an initial investment and a reassuring commitment by City Council to try new things and not shy away from bold approaches to one of our oldest issues. I expect this is just a start for the year, and we should all be excited and energized about the many discussions ahead as we tackle the opportunities to recover stronger from this pandemic. This is a time to be audacious, intentional, and thoughtful about doing things differently and achieving better results for all of Philadelphia.
Allan Domb is a City Council member at-large in Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.