Philadelphia’s Poverty Problem

This is the problem we never talk about

More than a third of the city’s kids don’t graduate from high school  —  and that percentage gets even worse in neighborhoods like this one. Sixty percent of the city’s children are born out of wedlock. A third grow up in poverty. Philadelphia, recent stats say, is America’s poorest big city.

Which hurts all of us. Consider the problems just on a practical level: It’s tough to attract new business to the city when so much of it is dangerous, when we lack an educated workforce. We lose out on tax revenue. We end up spending more  —  billions more  —  on prisons and services trying to resurrect our poorest people than we would in tackling some of their problems head-on.

But something else came through in every story I heard, a prominent cause of all that failure in our inner city. It’s a problem that makes the lives of children, especially, so much more difficult: Inner-city families are often a mess of neglect and bad behavior and worse. It’s one of the reasons people like me start pretending certain parts of the city don’t even exist.


Tanisha laughs as she says that  —  not that she thinks it’s so funny, really, but it’s the truth. She says it several times. “Poppa was a rolling stone.” She giggles. Her father has had 10 children with five different women.

Tanisha didn’t fall far from the tree. She says her problem was “fornication.” She got pregnant at 17. She had one son, Evans, with a drug dealer, and another with, well, she wasn’t sure, at first. But now she’s convinced her second son’s father is a Jamaican drug dealer who was deported. He doesn’t know he has a son.

But Tanisha, 31 now, straightened her life out via a renewed faith in God. She quit sex cold turkey for a year and a half. With her husband Anthony, who drives an armored truck, she rents a rowhome in West Philly and home-schools the two boys. Meanwhile, Evans’s father is still a drug dealer, and Evans spends time with him for the obvious reason: He’s his father. Tanisha hopes she can steer Evans clear of that world. The odds are not in their favor.

Charise, the Swarthmore sophomore, overcame those odds. She’s a slightly husky 19-year-old with spritzes of braided hair and an immediate gap-toothed laugh. Her father was in prison much of her childhood. He had drug problems and never helped support her. Her mother would beat her over homework; a teacher once asked about the marks on her neck  —  her mother had thrown a book at her. But doing her homework kept her mother off her back, and Charise discovered she was good at school. Her mother worked on and off; she had two more children with another man, and spent a lot of time holed up in the bathroom smoking pot. Charise won an award as the top student in her middle school, and got into Bodine, a magnet high school in Northern Liberties. During her junior year, her father reappeared; she began to get close to him, then he disappeared again. Charise got depressed and thought about killing herself. Bodine helped her get counseling, and she kept working hard. Her father reappeared a year later and didn’t tell her where he’d gone or why. Charise graduated from Bodine as salutatorian. Her father is back in prison. She’s not sure where, though he writes her letters. Charise doesn’t answer them.