One of the great challenges of living in a city with the high poverty rate that has long dogged Philadelphia is how to remain optimistic that the proposals designed to alleviate it can work.
The past few decades have seen many attempts to “solve” the poverty problem, both nationally and locally. Mayor John Street launched a $300 million anti-blight program called the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. In 2013, Mayor Michael Nutter launched the Shared Prosperity program, designed to streamline and maximize available aid to people. Both had their successes, but change in the poverty rate was incremental.
The latest effort, a “Poverty Action Plan” was released in early March from City Council and a committee including Darrell Clarke, Maria Quiñones Sanchez and Allan Domb. Last week, Council announced the creation of a new nonprofit to implement the plan, funded with a $10 million grant from the city.
The plan, originally described as a “moonshot” designed to lift 100,000 people out of poverty by 2024, offers a set of sweeping actions: seven strategies that range from providing a basic income to individuals and wage tax refunds to adult education and job training stipends. It creates a Poverty Commission, described as a public-private partnership including city and state government, philanthropies, universities and civic institutions like the United Way. In addition to a fund, it creates a dashboard to measure progress.
The commission also assembled a staggering number of people: five co-chairs, 19 full committee members, and 57 additional people spread over three separate committees.
Many are familiar names who have been at the front lines of fighting poverty for years, if not decades. While it will take a large, all-hands-on-deck effort to make inroads, it is of concern that, especially in this town, many people means many politics, and many often-conflicting agendas. And the last eight months have complicated things further, since many organizations will be fighting for their own survival.
Two weeks after the initial release of the poverty plan, the pandemic hit. That reality must be incorporated into this ambitious effort – if not completely rewrite it.
Any plan must address how the pandemic will send poverty’s roots even deeper into our soil. It will demand a more radical set of questions and solutions. For example, where is the future of jobs and training if entire sectors that once provided jobs – retail, hospitality and restaurants – are severely battered, if not decimated? How much access to federal benefits will be viable given that Congress remains deadlocked over releasing the barest cash assistance to millions who have been suffering for months unable to work or pay rent, to say nothing of city and state budgets being wrecked in the process? While Philadelphia’s city budget has grown dramatically, experts were sounding alarms even before the pandemic about the city’s capacity to weather an economic downturn.
Naturally, governments at every level and in every city and state are confronting these massive questions.
Council deserves praise for trying to align many disparate interests. But what hammer does Council have to keep everyone on the same page? It’s fair to ask how far this can go given that one of the pillars of the poverty plan is wage tax relief to low income working families – which Mayor Kenney pocket-vetoed in January. He also pocket-vetoed property tax relief, another part of the poverty plan’s strategies.
Part of leadership is setting goals that are slightly out of reach. But leadership must also recognize that there needs to be a possibility of success, especially confronting complicated problems like poverty. Lifting 100,000 people out of poverty will take vision and optimism. But it will also take a lot more than $10 million – and a lot longer than four years. Solving this crisis requires a capacity for radical new thinking as well as radical realism.