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Philadelphia's poverty...of ideas

The City of Brotherly Love is all tapped out -- and so are its social "critics."

To quote the great Neil Young...shoulda been done long ago. Today the Daily News goes behind the symptoms of the things we usually write about -- things like urban crime and broke public schools -- to go deep on Philadelphia's greatest problem: Our high rate of poverty. My colleague Sandy Shea wrote the centerpiece of the package:

Reduce the number of jobs, pay less for the ones that are left, and decrease the help the government gives: You couldn't design a better set of forces to drive more and more people into poverty if you tried. Layer a brutal recession on top of this, with rising foreclosures and bankruptcies, and you end up with a country falling behind - not just in fully employed workers, but in the number of Americans who don't have enough to survive in one of the world's richest nations.

If you like, you can choose an easier way to understand poverty. It's a view favored, unfortunately, by many conservatives in Congress and elsewhere who believe that once upon a time, Americans had a strong work ethic that has since eroded into a nation of lazy spongers, indulged by an ever-growing government that provide benefits that discourage people from honest hard work. The more we give people, the more we discourage them from getting a job and pulling their weight. The jobs are there; you just have to get out there and get one.

As maddening as that view can be in the face of the facts, it's easy to see why someone would choose this easy set of assumptions. The reality is complex, daunting and frightening. It speaks to a world that has grown out of our control, with little hope of fixing it.

"A measure of the greatness of a powerful nation is the character of the life it creates for those who are powerless to make ends meet." That's not Obama talking. It's not Clinton, or Carter or Johnson. It's Richard Nixon, in a message in 1969 on reforming welfare.

Sandy's piece is both moving and persuasive, and the most reassuring part is that way that readers are, heck, who am I kidding? Of course, 90 percent of the reader commentary is negative, falling back on the same two tired tropes, that poverty is the result of a) laziness or b) one-party Democratic rule, or both. (Note: I agree the corruption of one-party Democratic rule is appalling, but I don't think it's a major structural contributor to poverty.)

First of all, maybe it's me but there seems to be an irony in folks sitting on their rear ends in their suburban lounge chairs with the leisure to comment 8 or 10 times on a newspaper article about how lazy urban folk are -- and most actual poor people aren't responding because even if they have digital access, they're out scrambling to somehow get enough food for their kids, without basics like good transportation or good health care to help them make it. As several experts that I spoke with for my part of the package (which runs tomorrow) pointed out, being poor in America is actually hard work! Like I said...that's ironic.

Second, just like your old line-green leisure suit, it's time to take your 1970s ideas about work and put them in mothballs. Since the financial crisis of 2008, I've reported extensively on unemployment in the Philadelphia region (i.e., both city and suburbs) and the biggest causes of joblessness, shockingly, is...a lack of jobs (and to a lesser extent, a skills mismatch with the few jobs that do exist). Calling people who've applied for dozens of jobs and not even received more than one or two callbacks "lazy" is like telling an American lost in a foreign land that he can communicate with the locals in English if he only "talks louder."

I saw, scattered through the comments, derisive comments about "burger flippers" asking to make $15 an hour. Imagine, toiling in a hot room on their feet all day, under pressure to produce quickly, in a job that requires skill but not extensive training. In other words, it''s exactly what factory workers did in 1975 when they were making the equivalent of $26 an hour with health care and pension benefits. The biggest difference between working on an assembly line -- the "good" job that you'd applaud for these otherwise "lazy" folks -- and working at a burger joint is that the factory worker fought to unionize, and then fought again for fair pay through collective bargaining. It's time for that history to repeat. It won't be easy you think it was easy then? I guess you've never seen movies like "Matewan"?

A wise man said just the other day that its time to start talking about  "the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the state, as well as indispensable cooperation between the private sector and civil society." I'm not sure if America is really ready to listen to Pope Francis, not yet. But it least we can start tearing down the walls we erected 40 or so years ago.