Poverty in Philly: It's brutal, but we can help | Editorial

A view of Center City Philadelphia from the Mantua neighborhood in West Philly.

It’s hardly news that Philadelphia has a long-term poverty problem. This pervasive state afflicts more than a quarter of our fellow citizens. And while this seems like the same old story, the details of this story shift constantly.  That’s why the latest Pew Philadelphia Research Institute report on poverty in the city, while not startling in its findings, is worth noting. Pew reviewed demographic and geographic data to update what we already know about poverty here.

The highlights: Hispanics have the highest poverty rate in Philadelphia, at 38 percent. The poverty rate for working-age adults has risen in the past decade. And while it’s been established that Philadelphia has the highest concentration of deep poverty of major cities, Pew found that poverty is concentrated in the city itself, and hasn’t spread to the suburbs at the same rate as other major metro areas.

Those are new elements that add to the troubling truths about poverty here. For example, since wages have not increased, working families and their children are still suffering despite the end of the recession. That drives the high percentage of children in poverty, at 37 percent. Separate research by Drexel University’s School of Public Health  found that childhood hunger has increased by 30 percent in the decade since 2006.

Poverty is also changed by politics, of course. The Trump administration and Republicans are not helping: big cuts in food stamps that began in 2013 would be even worse in new budget proposals. Congress’ inability  to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) puts many children at risk.

But it’s not all up to the feds. The state plays a big role, as does the city, in helping reduce poverty — although the city seems alone in its concern for poverty.  Mayor Kenney’s pre-K program, for example, is a solid step.  But steps that could make real change take a combined effort:

Raise the minimum wage. It’s significant that working-age adults have seen a spike in poverty: There are few jobs, and the ones that are available don’t pay enough to survive on. While other states have raised the wage, Pennsylvania still offers $7.25 an hour.  That’s brutal math for survival.

Stop  thinking that making more people go hungry is a good thing.  Many political leaders like to be stingy with benefits like food stamps, exploiting myths that people are ripping off the government. A recent Trump proposal wants to add work requirements to food stamps, an idea embraced by Republicans. The fact they neglect to realize: over 30 percent of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) households already have at least one person working.

Understand that poverty is trauma. A common misconception  is that poor people are lazy or should be considered victims of their own “bad choices.”  But parents who can’t afford to feed their kids, or find safe, affordable housing, or kids who are neglected or subject to violence are undergoing traumas.

We need to truly acknowledge the toll of damage that poverty inflicts on our fellow citizens.   If we did, we surely would insist on more action – even beyond the current season of compassion.