Philadelphia touts efforts fighting poverty

Eva Gladstein, the city's deputy managing director of health and human services, addresses a meeting on fighting poverty in 2014.

Philadelphia officials on Thursday touted progress in improving the plight of the poor, even though the city's poverty rate of 25.8 percent towers over the national rate of 13.5 percent.

"I think we're in a great place," said Mitchell Little, executive director of the Mayor's Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity (CEO). "We're moving in the right direction, and there is still a lot of work to do. I am not unaware of where the poverty rate is, but this is a generational issue."

Little was among the speakers at Thursday's annual Uniting to Fight Poverty Summit at the Arch Street Friends Meeting House in Old City.

During the daylong gathering of antipoverty advocates, Little's office released the third-year progress report of Shared Prosperity Philadelphia, the city's comprehensive antipoverty program.

Among the findings:

The city gained 22,200 jobs between 2012 and 2015, 89 percent of its goal of adding 25,000 jobs by the end of 2015.

The city exceeded the goal of adding 1,700 hospitality industry jobs in 2014. In 2015, an additional 1,200 jobs were added for a total of 4,900 jobs added through 2015, or 288 percent of the original goal.

The gap between the national and local unemployment rate fell between 2013 and 2014 from 3 points to 1.9 points. In the last full calendar year (2015) the gap fell further, down to 1.6.

The number of adult literacy seats in city- and state-funded programs grew from 3,843 in fiscal year 2013 to 5,165 in fiscal 2016, despite a slight dip in state-funded seats this year.

Despite the progress, Philadelphia's poverty rate and its deep poverty rate of 12.2 percent - deep poverty is half the federal poverty level - are the highest among the nation's 10 largest cities, according to the Mayor's Office.

"We're a special city, not just for our promise but also for the fact that we retain the dubious distinction of having the highest poverty rate and deep poverty rate," said Eva Gladstein, the city's deputy managing director of health and human services.

Little and others at the meeting were skeptical about how the election of Donald Trump as president would affect their work helping the poor.

"The city will need all of its nonprofits, all of its partners, all the organizations that help people living in poverty to come together and do the right thing," Little said during a morning speech.

"It's a tremendous time. But I think it's a tremendous time to rally the troops, be more coordinated and sophisticated about our interventions, and be more determined in regards to our advocacy," he said later.

City Councilwoman Helen Gym told the gathering, "History is full of dark and uncertain moments," alluding to Trump. "It is our responsibility to overcome them and to be part of that process of overcoming; to resist if necessary, to persevere, and to build a future that may not yet exist."

Angela Nike Sutton, an unemployed Northeast mother of two who volunteers with the Witnesses to Hunger nonprofit, said she came to the meeting to put a face on poverty.

"We have to keep fighting for people like us to help people understand that a lot of us are not lazy. We want more," said Sutton, 40, who lives on Social Security and disability payments, and is taking a break from studying behavioral health at Drexel University.

"Unfortunately, politicians look at people in poverty as numbers. They don't realize that America can't rise higher than its weakest link, and we are the weakest leak because of what we're given," she added.

deanm@phillynews.com

215-854-4172@mensahdean