Escaping poverty

Inquirer Editorial Board, Sunday, March 1, 2015

A North Philly resident makes his way on foot through the snow-covered streets. Any significant reduction in poverty will require more jobs.

A North Philly resident makes his way on foot through the snow-covered streets. Any significant reduction in poverty will require more jobs. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

When Philadelphia’s next mayor takes the oath of office inside the glittering Academy of Music, he or she should have a plan to help the city residents who cannot afford to attend a concert, don’t have enough food to eat, and do not expect life to get better for them or their children.

The next mayor will lead the poorest among the nation’s 10 biggest cities. More than a quarter of its 1.5 million residents live in poverty. Thirty-nine percent of its children are poor.

There are programs to help, but too many people don’t know they qualify. About 20 percent of Philadelphians eligible for food stamps or the Earned Income Tax Credit isn’t enrolled in the programs. Fifteen percent of adults and 5 percent of the city’s children do not have health insurance. And although two-thirds of the city’s children are eligible for child-care subsidies, only about a third receives them.

Calling persistent poverty a “silent crisis,” the Nutter administration in 2013 created the Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity. Its mission is to provide one shop with access to all the tools available in Philadelphia to help the poor, including community leaders, neighborhood organizations, a network of experienced social-service providers, community development resources, and faith-based organizations.

The new office helps clients find services running the gamut from job training to learning how to save. It has opened half a dozen centers where people can apply for programs such as Medicaid or assistance to pay winter heat bills. The centers help clients fill out applications and follow up to make sure clients get benefits.

Even with the initiative, poverty is pervasive. Philadelphia’s poverty rate did slip a tad from 26.9 percent to 26.3 percent between 2012 and 2013, according to recent census figures, but that’s all.

The Children’s Defense Fund says by investing an additional 2 percent of the federal budget into existing programs and policies, the nation could reduce child poverty by 60 percent and lift 6.6 million children out of poverty. Philadelphia’s next mayor must be willing to consider taking a similar approach here. It’s time for the city to do more than treat poverty’s symptoms.

Proposing policy and budget adjustments will be controversial, but what must be kept in mind is that poverty affects not just the poor but the entire city in terms of lost resources and revenue spent on related services, such as health care and law enforcement. Even the most affluent Philadelphians who have little fear of ever becoming poor are paying for the city’s poverty.

Ultimately, any significant reduction in poverty will require more jobs. While tax breaks and other inducements could help to accomplish that, it is also essential to provide a well-educated workforce that attracts employers. Investing more in education is a crucial ingredient in reducing poverty. But that investment requires a mayor willing to make the policy and budgetary changes that are needed to achieve it.


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