Philadelphia’s Poverty Problem

This is the problem we never talk about

There are other family stories I hear that are much like Charise’s and Tanisha’s, stories with an absent father, or a wayward, drug-pushing boyfriend, or promiscuous girls, at the center of them.

Two things are immediately obvious about the impoverished inner city. One: The lives are so hard, with so many problems, that the children, particularly, need all the help we can give them. Two: The way a lot of the people who have these children raise them makes the problems nearly impossible to solve no matter what we might do.

Unless, that is, a child makes a miraculous leap like Charise’s, though even she isn’t sure where her rock-solid will to learn came from. “I knew I wanted to get out,” she says  —  out of her home, out of the neighborhood, out into a different world.

I reach back to something else: The problems haven’t changed in half a century.

In 1968, this magazine published the article “Pray for Barbara’s Baby.” Barbara was a 16-year-old black girl living in North Philadelphia. She was befriended by a number of white, middle-class women who were hoping to push her into education and out of her neighborhood. Instead, Barbara got pregnant.

A visit to Barbara’s street — Folsom — suggested why. By 1968, Folsom was:

… a narrow strip of broken paving along which dilapidated houses alternate with burned-out shells and littered vacant lots like teeth in a mouth that got to the dentist 20 years too late. The first thing you notice about Folsom Street is the children. The street seethes with children. … The adults are invisible; perhaps they are inside begetting more.

Failed solutions, not to mention hundreds of billions of dollars, date back just as far, to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Then, at least there was hope, however misguided. Now, the battle lines over just what’s at the root of our city’s poverty and attendant ills seem to be more harshly drawn.

Pediatrician Don Schwarz is Mayor Nutter’s head public-health guy  —  he implements programs to help at-risk children and families get permanent housing and receive regular checkups and immunizations. Schwarz’s view of our responsibility to relieve inner-city hardship was forged by an intervention program he worked on in 1989, when he visited 1,300 families in West Philly to educate mothers on nurturing their babies. “I sat in a lot of homes, at their dining room table,” Schwarz says. “If they had one.” They told him what was holding them back: a lack of money, a lack of education, a lack of welcome into places in the city where there were jobs. A lack of a car. He learned that many people believed no matter how hard they tried, they could never change their lives. “That changed the way I judged,” Schwarz says.