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Over 28 percent of Philadelphians live in poverty—the highest poverty rate among
America’s largest cities. Many of the poor are children. In fact, nearly 78 percent of
Philadelphia School District children—120,000 of the district’s 154,000 students—
receive free or reduced lunch.

With 40,000 abandoned properties in the city as of 2010, wide swaths of property in
West and North Philadelphia lie vacant, and long-dead factories line desolate streets
where jobs have disappeared. The problem is not new, either. It has been this way for
decades.

Against this backdrop, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter signed an executive order
creating the Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity, the first
agency to bring the city’s anti-poverty efforts under one roof, thus unifying the various
efforts to fight Philadelphia’s persistent poverty.

Eva Gladstein, who will begin serving as Executive Director in February, said the Office
of Community Empowerment and Opportunity (CEO) will work with numerous parties,
managing Community Service Block Grant funds from the federal government and
serving as a single point of contact for the City’s anti-poverty efforts. The City has
already begun some of that work, Gladstein said, through focus groups and stakeholder
interviews.

Asked who qualifies as a stakeholder, Gladstein said everyone has a stake, because
everyone is affected by poverty. “It does affect the overall quality of life,” she said.
When poverty is prevalent “we have less general revenue to provide services for
everybody. We have less money for trash pickup, pothole repair, to get blight removed,
etc.”

The city will work with organizations that address financial literacy, child development,
adult literacy, workforce issues, and direct work in low-income communities. “I don’t
think anything’s off the table,” Gladstein said.

Observers who work with impoverished populations believe flexibility will be important
to help the city’s low-income populations, including the homeless.

“It will only work if people have open minds about what policies should be pursued and
have a priority to house people, not shelter them,” said Phyllis Ryan Jackson, Executive
Director of the Philadelphia Committee to End Homelessness. There’s mounting
evidence that three things decrease poverty, she added. “People need homes, jobs and
a decent education. It’s not a long list.”

Dennis Culhane, Penn’s Dana and Andrew Stone Professor of Social Policy, said his data
indicates that poverty is a complicated problem, especially in Philadelphia. There is no
magic bullet that will solve the problem, Culhane said, because while most poverty is
cyclical, ensnaring people who slip in and out of poverty as a result of the vagaries of
what goes on with the economy, there is also generational poverty.

“It accumulates across the span of people’s lives,” Culhane said. “If they’re
disadvantaged from birth, to the lack of early education, to the lack of healthcare, all
the way through the school system, by the time they reach adulthood there are so
many barriers, so many burdens, so much trauma they’ve experienced, the exposure to
violence. The psychological impact is huge—the health impact of all those things.”

Still, it’s important not to overstate the problem, Culhane said. There’s not one group
that is consistently poor.

There is, however, the matter of the resources that will be dedicated to the problem,
Culhane said. He’s not sure the Community Service Block Grant funds will be enough to
help the poor, especially those who are most vulnerable.

One strategy the CEO should consider is working with the schools, Culhane said.
“Children are suffering more than anyone else. They’re dependent on adults, they
don’t have provisions, and the safety net is taking huge cuts. Children are the ones
being affected by the disadvantage at the moment. We need some leveraged solution
involving the schools.”

But the research shows that another strategy is also effective, Culhane said. “Most of
the programs that do job development and help connect people to employment tend
to show modest but significant results in terms of getting people back into the labor
market.”