Philadelphia’s Poverty Problem

This is the problem we never talk about

THAT EARLY EVENING in September, when I reach the street deep in West Philly where Charise, the sophomore at Swarthmore, lives, I walk up her block kicking through bottles and discarded paper like they’re autumn leaves. A few doors from Charise’s house, a guy maybe 30, heavy-lidded, nodding, half conscious, sits with a woman who murmurs to him in a voice cut deep with cigarettes or booze or both. Across the street, a house is boarded up.

It’s like a deadly and horrendous game of chicken that all of us are playing. One side is pitted against the other. Do we  —  outsiders, the middle class, white people  —  take on the challenge of our inner cities, especially the plight of children there? Or is it their problem, removed from our consciousness by half a century of abuse and neglect and outright betrayal of their own children?

These are horrible questions, though not because they risk insensitivity or worse. They’re horrible because we know who loses.

And as the problems roll on, as we’re now almost three generations into inner-city families falling apart, pediatrician Don Schwarz’s observation only becomes a deeper historical truth: More and more of our poor people can’t even conceive of better lives.

So we find ourselves perpetually starting over, trying to come up with solutions. It seems clear to me that two things have to happen. Black leaders, both here and nationally, need to push poor parents to take more responsibility for their own betterment. At the same time, if children growing up in horrible circumstances simply deserve better  —  anybody going to argue with that?  —  the rest of us have a challenge, too. It’s not so much in picking a new social program to try or in anointing a school czar or in anything specific  —  it’s more a shift in mind-set: We need to believe the inner city is our problem, too. We can no longer turn away.