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Patrick Kerkstra: On city poverty, no easy answer

In too many Philadelphia circles, there's a view that the answer to the city's poverty pandemic is to just open more coffee shops, more restaurants, more yoga studios.

In too many Philadelphia circles, there's a view that the answer to the city's poverty pandemic is to just open more coffee shops, more restaurants, more yoga studios.

More Center City, in other words.

In this view, virtuous "urban pioneers" - as they sometimes call themselves, seemingly unaware of what that phrase implies about the neighborhoods they are settling in - are eradicating poverty block by block, renovating row homes and old warehouses, or building townhomes on formerly vacant lots.

You see this dynamic at work in Point Breeze, Kensington, Mantua, University City, and other neighborhoods. The impact of all this gentrification is real and - despite the discomfort and displacement it causes - a positive development for the city.

But it is not near enough to check spreading poverty.

Consider the case of Southwest Center City, those blocks west of Broad and below South Street. In 1999, this was a rough neighborhood, with lots of crime and poverty. Today, it appears utterly transformed, with sky-high property prices, bistros, and all the usual accompaniments of gentrification.

And yes, poverty is down there, though perhaps not quite as dramatically as one might expect. The two census tracts that form the heart of the community had a combined poverty rate of 29 percent in 1999. In 2011, that rate had dropped to 19 percent.

That's real progress, but it also means that about one in five residents in one of the city's most transformed neighborhoods is still living in poverty.

What happened in the city overall? The poverty rate rose alarmingly, from 22.9 percent in 1999 to 28.4 percent in 2011.

That's an easy fact to lose sight of in prosperous Center City. But Center City accounts for just 11.4 percent of Philadelphia's population, and its two square miles of real estate represent 1.5 percent of the city's land.

Center City-led gentrification isn't going to solve the poverty problem.

That should worry everyone, including middle-class and affluent Philadelphians. Mass poverty is largely to blame for the city's high tax rates, the poor performance of its public schools, the vacancy epidemic, and more.

Which is why it was gratifying to see a new and comprehensive antipoverty plan out of City Hall this month, and to hear Mayor Nutter say that Philadelphia won't "continue to flourish if we don't address and significantly reduce the devastating problems and challenges of poverty."

The plan, which goes by the name Shared Propserity (read it at, is long overdue. There are a wide array of city agencies, nonprofits, and advocacy groups dedicated to reducing poverty, but in recent years collaboration has been poor to nonexistent, as Nutter acknowledged.

"Our efforts have not been as coordinated, not been as integrated, and in some instances have not been as thoughtful as they could be," he said when announcing the new plan. That's a mea culpa of the first order for an administration that rarely admits mistakes.

The new plan, which is being coordinated by the new Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity, does not represent a big new investment in poverty reduction. Antipoverty funding is a federal and state matter, for the most part, and Philadelphia is in no fiscal position to spend more than it already is.

This plan is built instead on "collective impact," a new buzzword in public policy circles that really means getting organizations and agencies with similar goals working in concert. If it sounds dead obvious, well, that's because it is.

And yet that sort of coordination - agreeing on an agenda, settling on common metrics, and so on - is harder than it sounds. Or at least, it's eluded antipoverty agencies and organizations in Philadelphia for a long time.

But there's cautious optimism around this plan, and, at minimum, the appearance of real buy-in. The goals, for the most part, are practical and well-defined. Get more low-income Philadelphians to open bank accounts. Ensure that more of those who qualify for federal and state assistance like food stamps are actually receiving those benefits. See that more low-income homeowners get housing counseling, instead of a foreclosure notice.

This close-up focus on managing and preventing the problems poverty creates isn't a cure-all, but it's an essential piece that's been largely ignored by elected officials and the press in favor of debate over tax policy and job creation.

That's a top-down approach. Poverty in Philadelphia is a problem big enough that it is best attacked from all directions.