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The contrast was particularly stark. Dozens of homeless men lined up along Logan Circle, just a stone’s throw from the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Central branch, where a standing room only crowd awaited an announcement on a plan to address poverty.
Inside, media members, service providers and agency heads filled the library’s main hall, where the Nutter administration outlined its plan to combat Philadelphia’s 28.4 percent poverty rate—the highest rate of the nation’s 10 largest cities.
Dubbed “Shared Prosperity Philadelphia,” the plan, which was created by the Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity (CEO), aims to improve Philadelphia’s poverty ranking for the first time in decades. It was conceived under the auspices of the Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity (CEO), which is headed by Eva Gladstein and controls $7 million in federal Community Development Block Grant funding. But addressing Philadelphia’s crushing poverty is about much more than a plan. It’s about changing the mindset of the entrenched groups and interests that refuse to see the poverty around them.
That much was evident as Mayor Nutter rose to speak about the plan. Just minutes in, he was interrupted by the strident jeers of city union members. The hecklers, whose signs bore the logos of AFSCME District Councils 33 and 47, which represent the city’s blue and white collar employees, called the mayor a liar, a bozo, and a joke. One of the signs read, “No more mayor of the 1%. Let’s build a better Philadelphia for all.” Another said, “We Protect. We serve. A fair contract is what we deserve.”
Given the enmity that has built up between the administration and the unions, which have worked without contracts since 2009, the vitriol was to be expected. That’s especially true in the wake of the mayor’s attempt to force District Council 33 to accept a contract through the courts. I expect municipal unions to be aggressive. They must do so to help make living wage government jobs available to all Philadelphians, regardless of race or background. That matters in a city where blacks and Latinos are more than twice as likely to be in poverty as their white counterparts, according to statistics laid out in the Shared Prosperity plan.
The dearth of business leaders at the announcement, save Don Haskins of Citibank, seemed to underscore the fact that the administration’s plan will face great obstacles in addressing the most basic anti-poverty initiative—employment. And to be honest, the plan’s goals concerning workforce development, housing, social services, and asset building, strike me as a repeat of the failed policies of the past. Perhaps, in a perfect world, the plan could change things for some of Philadelphia’s poor. But the world isn’t perfect, and yesterday’s announcement was an illustration of that reality.
As Nutter stepped up to the podium to speak, he began quoting the troubling statistics that precipitated the plan.
“Approximately 440,000 Philadelphians live in poverty,” he said, “including 39 percent of our children, 27 percent of our working adults, 17 percent of our senior citizens, and 200,000 of our fellow Philadelphians trapped in what is referred to as deep poverty, which is a measure defined as one half of the federal poverty line.”
As the mayor went through the list of those affected by poverty, one of the union members in the back of the room yelled, “City workers!”
“You don’t care about poverty!” shouted another. “You only care about the 1 percent!”
As the others made similar statements, one person held a sign that simply said: “Poverty increases for pubic employees under Michael Nutter’s leadership.”
To which I say, hogwash.
Has the administration bungled the contract negotiations with the city’ largest unions? Yes. Should the unions be given a fair contract now that the national economy is beginning to rebound? Yes. But there is a time and place to deliver that message. The launch of an anti-poverty program in the city with the highest poverty rate of America’s 10 largest cities is not that time.
Why? Because Philadelphia’s municipal workers are just that—workers. That means they have jobs. Those jobs are secure and their benefits are stable. Unlike workers in states like Wisconsin, they still have the right to bargain collectively. While those things do not equal wealth in most cases, they definitely don’t constitute poverty.
It remains to be seen what Eva Gladstein will be able to accomplish in her role as Executive Director of CEO, the city agency now charged with helping to decrease the persistent poverty that has crippled vast areas of the city. But one thing is certain. In order to help the impoverished, Gladstein will need help.
She will need those suffering in poverty not only to reach out for help. She will also need them to do the necessary legwork to make that help effective.
She will need the business community to provide jobs to those who strive to qualify for employment.
She will need the Nutter administration to move beyond lip service and put real support behind the effort.
She will need municipal workers with living wage jobs and benefits to understand this simple fact: They are not poor. They are rich in ways they can’t possibly imagine.
Just ask the homeless men lining up for food on Logan Circle.