Ask Philadelphians what makes our city exceptional, and you'll hear a lot of proud responses. We're the birthplace of modern democracy, the home of Rocky's fighting spirit, the city of the world-champion Eagles.
But one distinguishing factor shames us all: Philadelphia is the only major city in the United States where incomes are falling and deep poverty — defined as living at 50 percent or below the poverty line — is on the rise. This, according to census numbers released last week.
As other urban centers such as New York, Dallas, and Phoenix thrive and the U.S. economy soars, our outlier status points to a uniquely mediocre political establishment and set of policies.
Take a look at the city's "antipoverty" office, as Inquirer reporters Claudia Vargas and TyLisa Johnson did last week. Five years after a rebrand and relaunch by the Nutter administration, and with $65 million in taxpayer money spent, the Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity has garnered "few measurable accomplishments," Vargas and Johnson report.
According to its own numbers, the office has, after spending $14 million last year, helped fewer than 5,000 people sign up for benefits. It claims as an accomplishment its work to boost the credit scores of 99 – 99! – Philadelphians in total. Its largest yearly expenditure is a $7 million pass-through grant that resulted in just over 100 permanent job placements last year.
Unsurprisingly, the antipoverty office's next-largest expenditure goes toward salaries and benefits for its 35 employees, including a $130,000 base salary for its executive director, Mitch Little.
That equates to more than 13 times the yearly salary of any of the increasing number of Philadelphians mired in deep poverty – and that's not counting the $160,000 Little spent on "outside marketing and consultants," speechwriters, and "executive coaching," all courtesy of the taxpayer.
In short, Philadelphia's antipoverty office combats poverty only insofar as it employs a bunch of do-nothing bureaucrats with no mandate and no accomplishments.
A better anti-poverty program would be to return the city's contribution to the office to the taxpayers, who must hand over a bigger chunk of our paychecks each year even as median incomes fall.
It's not just at our do-nothing antipoverty office where the rhetoric far outpaces the results. Take the soda tax to fund pre-K seats, the signature tax program of Mayor Kenney's first term, ushered in with all of the "let's do it for the kids" rhetoric the mayor's team could muster. Turns out that most of the $85 million that's been collected from taxpayers — disproportionately poor taxpayers, who pay the biggest chunk of so-called consumption taxes — hasn't been spent on pre-K seats at all, according to City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart's audit earlier this year.
Where do Philadelphians go to get our tax money back if the programs we're funding aren't helping anybody?
The failure of our political class to improve life for the people of Philadelphia shows that for the folks running the show, the people serve the government, and not the other way around.
There's never a discussion of cutting back, streamlining, or eliminating waste, because that would mean less money to throw around and fewer patronage jobs to award. And moreover, achieving results is actually hard, and any established bureaucracy seeks to do what's easy. What's easy for Philadelphia's ruling class is what it's already been doing – which is not much.
From the Democrats in charge, it's progressive rhetoric, nonbinding resolutions, endless meaningless task forces, and ever-expanding programs with nobody minding the results. All this busyness gives the people in charge the illusion of progress, and there's never a need to cut back.
If the deeply impoverished in Philadelphia ever manage to rise up, it will be in spite of our city's leaders, not because of them.