Philadelphia’s Poverty Problem

This is the problem we never talk about

But a different view of the problem has increasingly ardent backers. A couple of years ago, when she was district attorney, Lynne Abraham said this to me about our inner-city culture of babies born to girls not ready to have them:

“What do you want us to do about your kid that you conceived when you were drunk or high, and you don’t care about your kid, don’t even know who the partner was, and never go to a doctor? You drink, you abuse yourself, you bring this kid into this world, and he’s just a little thing to play with for a couple days, and then you lose interest. You give him to your best friend or oldest kid to take care of. What do you want us to do about that?”

Don Schwarz believes we have a responsibility  —  as a city, a culture, a country  —  to help people in desperate straits who see no way out. Lynne Abraham believes it’s high time African-Americans in the inner city got their act together.
I believe they’re both right. The problem is, neither path seems very likely.

THERE IS A POSSIBLE SOLUTION, though it happens to be in New York at the moment. Geoffrey Canada is a longtime educator who conceived the Harlem Children’s Zone a decade ago to take on what’s wrong with kids’ lives comprehensively. Now stretching 97 blocks, the zone includes a charter school, a Baby College offering prenatal care and child-rearing classes, pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds, and after-school instruction. The idea was to create a safety net woven so tightly that children in the neighborhood couldn’t slip through. The results have been impressive  —  the Zone wiped out the achievement gap in math between its black students and New York’s average for white students, for example  —  though the expense is enormous. Something on the order of $20,000 per student, per year. Canada spends a great deal of his time tapping deep-pocket donations.

The idea, though, of getting to children earlier, partnering with the parents, and sticking with children despite the parents, if necessary, is now “the gold standard,” says John Kromer, a Fels Institute consultant at Penn and author of Fixing Broken Cities.

It’s a method that would allay a key Don Schwarz frustration: “We don’t have our hands on children until they enter school.” And by kindergarten, a lot of kids in the inner city are already in deep trouble in terms of development, nutrition and basic medical care.

There are pockets of help here, isolated victories like Canada’s Harlem Zone in microcosm. Sister Mary Scullion of Project H.O.M.E. has made a four-block-plus area around Berks Street in North Philly an oasis of counseling and training. Herb Lusk, the former Eagle, is pastor at Greater Exodus Baptist Church on North Broad Street; the church has mushroomed to include a charter school, job-training services and a prenatal center.