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Beyond the stark beauty of Center City’s gleaming towers, Philadelphia is peppered with signs of poverty. Men worn down by years on the streets pull shopping carts full of scrap metal. Women with pain etched into their faces sit begging on dirty sidewalks.
From Kensington to Strawberry Mansion, and from Fishtown to Mantua, our city’s neighborhoods —with their empty factories, abandoned houses and desolate streets — scream out an inconvenient truth.
Twenty-eight percent of Philadelphians live in poverty, making it among the poorest of America’s large cities. And while public officials including Mayor Michael Nutter are trying to address the issue through the newly created Mayor’s office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity (CEO), two key questions arise: How did we get here? And how do we fix it?
As far as solutions go, “nothing’s off the table,” Eva Gladstein, who will run the new entity, told AxisPhilly during a recent interview. Only time will tell if that’s true.
In a city where poverty is concentrated among children, “we don’t have the luxury of time,” said CEO board member and City Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez.
In a wide-ranging interview, Sanchez, who represents the Seventh Council District, where 44 percent of households live with incomes under $20,000, said Philadelphia’s crushing poverty warrants immediate action. She put forth several ideas that are either bold or controversial, depending on one’s point of view. For example, Sanchez said the city should consider, on a case-by-case basis, expunging felony convictions from the records of some of the 300,000 ex-offenders on Philadelphia’s streets.
Why? Because Sanchez believes the policies of former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham exacerbated the problem.
“For 20 years we had a D.A. who was very focused in on marking what was hundreds of thousands of young men for life,” Sanchez explained. “She overcharged them for felony counts for what could’ve been simple assaults or other things—non-felony counts. Now we’re working our way out of that.”
Sanchez, who said there must be a correlation between the ex-offenders inability to get jobs and Philadelphia’s growing poverty rate, said the private sector must become part of the solution by hiring ex-offenders. Clearly, though, ex-offenders aren’t the only ones having trouble finding jobs. Unemployment in Philadelphia was at 10.6 percent in December, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and has hovered in that area for the past year.
And then there are the children. Because they live in a world where poverty and cruelty sometimes go hand-in-hand, they end up suffering more than most.
“Trauma has now become a mental health issue in this city when you have children who have witnessed this crime of been victims of crime,” Sanchez said. “So we have to seriously address poverty at its core from [the perspective of] the mental health state of the community.”
The reasons for the state of the community — economic, mental, and otherwise — are many, Sanchez said, but she believes Philadelphia’s consistently high poverty rate can be traced back to public policies that go beyond the criminal justice system.
The decision to levy a net profits tax on business chased away manufacturing, she said, creating a vacuum in communities that depended on factory jobs. Former Mayor Ed Rendell’s focus on rebuilding downtown, and his leveraging Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to do so, came at the expense of the neighborhoods, she said. And while former Mayor John Street’s focus on neighborhoods helped to remove abandoned cars and clean up blighted buildings in the wake of the manufacturing exodus, people who lived in those neighborhoods were left behind.
There can be no more waiting, she said. “This city will continue to be plagued with challenges on public safety, on education, if we don’t look at the core, which is poverty.”
The question, for those who live in Philadelphia and cities like it, is this: What price we are willing to pay to address the core issue of poverty? Should we, as Councilwoman Sanchez asserts, address poverty by helping ex-offenders to expunge their records and gain employment? Or should we maintain our current path?