The May 21 primary will not only help decide the composition of City Council and the mayor’s and other offices. Voters will also be signaling their views on key issues facing the city. The Inquirer Editorial Board continues its Primary School series, designed to take a deeper look at some of these issues.
Philadelphia has a poverty problem — 26 percent of its population lives in poverty. This already-challenging issue becomes even more problematic when candidates for office talk about poverty, because the ensuing conversations never quite unpack what exactly poverty means — and what is realistic for a mayor or an elected city official to do about it.
The roots of our high rates of poverty — including deep poverty, which is defined as 50 percent below the poverty line — are complicated and long term. They include a structural shift away from manufacturing, formerly the heart of the city’s economy; the migration of jobs to the suburbs; the stagnation of wages (including the minimum wage); and the decline of social safety net programs like Medicaid, food stamps, and cash assistance.
Many of these shifts occur and are mitigated at the state and federal levels. For example, Philadelphia could ease poverty if it raised the minimum wage. It has done so for those who work for the city, but can’t do an across-the-board change without being challenged by the state.
While unemployment has declined in the city, many people are not even in the workforce — and may not have the adequate technical skills to even apply for low-level jobs.
Another factor: A high rate of Philadelphia citizens have disabilities. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey in 2016 found that 16 percent of all Philadelphians — roughly 246,000 people — had a disability; the national average is 12.5 percent.
Immigration patterns also play a role. A 2017 Pew Philadelphia Project report points out that in the last few decades, the city’s Hispanic population has grown considerably. Meanwhile, a higher percentage of Hispanics, 37.9 percent, live below the poverty line than any other ethnic group.
All of this goes to the point that the mayor of Philadelphia — whoever he or she is — does not control enough of the levers that can have a serious impact on poverty. That’s not to say that nothing can or should be done.
The mayor, especially one presiding over a city of eds, meds, and tech, can apply pressure to larger employers like universities to lower barriers to employment, and to encourage more jobs and contracts to go to Philadelphians.
Connecting people to available benefits was a function of Shared Prosperity, created by Mayor Michael Nutter. Housing all poverty efforts into a single office has become less of a priority; the current administration cites expanded pre-K, education funding, and other programs as part of a larger poverty strategy.