The Philadelphia City Council Special Committee on Poverty Reduction and Prevention’s inaugural meeting set significant goals for poverty reduction.
The committee was established in response to the Narrowing the Gap report, which was released last spring and outlined strategies for alleviating poverty in the city. The committee is chaired by Councilmember Maria Quinones-Sanchez, Deputy Managing Director of Health and Human Services Eva Gladstein, Urban Affairs Coalition President Sharmain Matlock-Turner, and One Day At A Time President Mel Wells.
According to information released by city council, the co-chairs have established a goal of moving 100,000 Philadelphians out of poverty by 2024. Currently, the city has 400,000 residents living at or below the poverty line. The special committee has been asked to complete a report on its findings by the end of the calendar year.
The committee is also comprised of three subcommittees (Housing, Jobs and Education, and Social Safety Net) which include dozens of members. Each will hold a public meeting in November, with times and locations to be announced on city council’s website.
In his opening remarks, Council President Darrell Clarke expressed his excitement regarding the mission of the committee.
“This whole issue of poverty is something that’s been discussed for a lot of years, literally decades, as it relates to the city of Philadelphia,” Clarke said. “But I think something special and something a little different will happen as a result of this particular format.”
Clarke said he had come to call the work of the committee a “moonshot,” a reference to the United State’s first moon landing in 1969.
“The intent of the moonshot at that time was to uplift humanity,” Clarke said. “In some respects that term is relevant because we are talking about uplifting literally 1 out of every 4 people in the city of Philadelphia out of poverty.”
Dr. Ira Goldstein, president of policy solutions at the Reinvestment Fund, presented “Defining Poverty in Philadelphia,” which offered a statistical look at the problem of poverty in the city, including factors that contribute to poverty.
“Education is a huge driver,” Goldstein said. “Heads of household who have not completed a high school degree, (means that) roughly 50% of those households live at or near poverty.”
Goldstein said that completely high school and receiving the degree drops the percentage to 35%.
The poverty rate in Philadelphia in 2018 was 24.5%, which is nearly 4 points higher than Houston, Texas, the city with the next highest poverty level. Philadelphia would need to cut its population living in poverty by 25%, or 100,000 people, to have a poverty rate consistent with the other nine largest cities in the country, according to Goldstein’s research.
Octavia Howell, researcher with the Pew Charitable Trusts, said a poll commissioned by Pew suggested that many who live beneath the poverty do not actually consider themselves to be poor.
“Forty-five percent of those whose income and family size met the federal definition of poverty said that they were not poor,” Howell said.
Mel Wells, a co-chair of the committee, said some people remain in poverty because that is their expectation.
“I believe one of our jobs is to change the expectations in the community,” Wells said. “Once we do that, we utilize our resources more.”
Bill Golderer, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, said that despite the largest economic recovery in the history of the United States, the poorest Philadelphians were still left behind.
“If you are in the top 80% (of income earners), Philadelphia is as good as any place in the country to live,” he said. “However, Philadelphia is the only city in the United States where, during the same period, people in the lowest 20% moved backward.”
In every other major city, Golderer said, people in the lowest 20% of earners made gains.
Golderer considers a large-scale anti-poverty program similar in scope to the Marshall Plan, the post-World War II effort lead by the United States to rebuild Europe.
“After the second World War, after Europe was broken, there were two motivations for rebuilding,” Golderer said. “One, it’s the morally right thing to do, and two, it’s in our economic interest to do so.”
It’s Golderer’s belief that philanthropists and middle-class members of the community were all waiting to get involved in helping the city alleviate poverty, but they were just waiting for leaders to provide direction.
“We need to set the table for something that is meaningful and measurable in terms of engagement,” Golderer said.
After the meeting, Matlock-Turner said when community partners saw this committee and its responsibilities were about an action agenda, rather than simply writing another report, there was enthusiasm.
“In the end, if we can have all of these people really owning this work, I think we have a better chance of driving it and keeping it going with the amount of time that it’s really going to take to get the resources and really see the change,” Matlock-Turner said.
Lawrence McGlynn is a recent graduate of Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication where he earned a Master’s in Journalism. For the next several months he will be reporting out of City Hall on various council and committee meetings, the city’s budget, and how these impact the daily lives of Philadelphians.
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