Philadelphia’s Poverty Problem

This is the problem we never talk about

But these are tiny islands of success. Even Lusk, a paragon of optimism, shakes his head over twin problems: “Time and the times,” he laments. He needs more time for job-training with folks who, often, can barely read  —  more time than the government will now pay for before they’re shooed back out on the street. And the times, well, we all know about that: the economy. Where are inner-city black people with no work history and slim skills going to find jobs?

While the city’s public schools  —  with half the students below grade level in reading and math, with truancy and violence unabated  —  remain a disaster, a few noble experiments have bubbled up: The KIPP charter school on North Broad, and Penn Alexander, the K-to-eighth-grade school ex-Penn president Judy Rodin bequeathed to West Philly, and seven charter schools run independently by Mastery have all made impressive strides in student achievement through strict behavior and dress requirements, long hours that include Saturday and summer classes, and rigorous homework.

What those schools also share in common is dedicated parents who are seeing that their kids meet those demands. Though the sad truth is, they  —  the dedicated parents  —  seem like a tiny island of success as well. Which begs a question: Where is the leadership in the black community demanding that parents do better, in educating their children and otherwise?

In mid-September, Barack Obama came sweeping into Masterman, the city’s high-end magnet school at 17th and Spring Garden, to kick off the school year. “Your life is what you make of it,” he told the kids. “And nothing  —  absolutely nothing  —  is beyond your reach. So long as you’re willing to dream big. So long as you’re willing to work hard. So long as you’re willing to stay focused on your education.”

Sure. Wonderful, inspiring  —  but he was preaching to the already converted. Where’s the challenge to the parents and kids who really need it?

Well, when Obama tried that  —  saying in a Father’s Day speech while he was running for president that blacks need to take more responsibility for their families and education  —  Jesse Jackson responded with, “I want to cut his nuts off. Barack  —  he’s talking down to black people.” Jackson was caught muttering that sentiment into a microphone he assumed wasn’t live.

“That’s what happens, when you speak out,” says Juan Williams, an African-American author and Fox News commentator who has done exactly that and been labeled an Uncle Tom for his trouble. (Williams was recently fired from NPR for saying on The O’Reilly Factor that seeing passengers on planes in Muslim garb makes him nervous.) “There is a lockstep mentality that amounts to censorship when black leaders begin to address central issues.

“I think if Dr. King were alive, he would, more and more, need to speak to poor black people about being our own worst enemy. I think it takes someone who is really fearless to speak the truth to people. The enemy isn’t them  —  some white guy in City Hall, or a corporation. The enemy is us.”