Having tasted the sting of poverty during my teen years in North Philly, I am often puzzled when the establishment bemoans the city’s ranking as America’s poorest big city.
After all, the deeply entrenched poverty that blankets the city’s brownest neighborhoods is strengthened by government policies. It is aided by structural racism. It grows with the help of the business community and stagnates when banks disinvest.
The recently released American Community Survey found that Philadelphia, with a 25.7 percent poverty rate, remains the poorest big city in America. And 2015 Census documents show what is plain to see. Our poverty is concentrated in black and brown communities, with around 41 percent of Latino Philadelphians living in poverty, compared with 31 percent of blacks and nearly 15 percent of whites.
No one within Philadelphia’s power structure should be surprised that blacks and Latinos compose the lion’s share of our poor. The power structure here helps to keep it that way.
Yes, it’s true that most black and brown people don’t live in poverty. It’s also true that some who are impoverished must do more to improve their own financial outlook. But power, at every level, makes black and brown poverty more likely in our city. Until we deal with that reality, poverty will remain Philadelphia’s most stubborn problem.
At the state level, for example, a Republican-led Legislature helped former Gov. Tom Corbett create America’s largest spending gap between rich and poor school districts. At the city level, the Democratic machine has long mandated that city funded construction projects go to unions that routinely exclude black and brown workers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there.
Policies put in place by successive city administrations create systems that divert resources away from the poorest Philadelphians.
The 10-year tax abatement gives property tax money meant for public schools to wealthy developers and others who can afford to erect new construction. That’s significant, not just because 55 percent of property tax dollars are mandated to go to public schools. It’s also significant because 37 percent of Philadelphia’s poor people are children.
And poor children in Philadelphia are poorly served by our system.
Where else but Philadelphia would citizens have to guess how much a governmental agency is supposed to pay into the schools it is mandated to support?
I doubt that could happen anyplace else, but that’s what’s happening with the Philadelphia Parking Authority — an agency that operates in the city but is controlled by the state. Yet neither the city nor the state can give Philadelphians a straight answer on how much money the PPA owes to the Philadelphia School District.
Of course, such shenanigans would never be tolerated in an affluent suburb. But they’re endured in Philadelphia, where most of the children in our pubic schools are poor and black or brown.
And even when such children are said to be the focus, someone else tends to benefit more than they do. In my view, that’s the case with the sweetened drinks tax.
The levy on sodas and other sugary-sweetened drinks was touted as something that would provide free pre-K classes for Philadelphia’s children. It does so for about 2,000 mostly poor kids, and that’s a good thing. But numerous studies show that the people who drink the most soda are poor African Americans and Latinos. Given that poor people spend a higher percent of their income on food and drink, the soda tax is not only regressive. It has racial and ethnic implications.
Perhaps I could overlook that reality if most of the money went to pre-K. Alas, only half the money produced by the sweetened drinks tax is slated to go to pre-K in the first five years. The rest will go to repairing Parks and Recreation Centers, the City’s General Fund, and other projects.
I reached out to the Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity to ask what else the city is doing to address poverty. They did not answer by press time, but the office lists employment assistance, debt reduction, federal tax refunds and legal help among the services it offers to struggling Philadelphians.
That’s good, but in truth, solving Philadelphia’s poverty is about more than that.
Solving the city’s poverty will require the biggest chunk of poor Philadelphia — people of color — to follow the advice of black grandmothers, and be twice as good to get half as much. It will require businesses to hire people of color who have the same or better qualifications as their white counterparts. It will require banks to engage in fair lending practices in black and brown communities.
It will require all Philadelphians to realize that increasing education reduces poverty, reducing poverty reduces crime, decreases the need for social services, and ultimately improves our city.
If we’re going to tackle poverty in Philadelphia, we have to dismantle the systems that enable it. Not just as a favor to the poor, but to improve the quality of life for all of us.