Four Obama State of the Union Pledges That Would Help Philly

And two big whiffs.

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President Obama barely made mention of cities or urban affairs in last night’s State of the Union. But his agenda did include four big initiatives that, if enacted (a big if), would have huge impacts on Philadelphia and other big cities.

1. Free Community College

What Obama said:

By the end of this decade, two in three job openings will require some higher education. Two in three. And yet, we still live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not smart for our future. That’s why I am sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college — to zero.

Why it matters for Philly: Community colleges just may be the best ladder to the middle class that exists in big cities like Philadelphia, offering a pathway to four-year degrees for graduates of troubled public schools and career training for young and old alike. The Community College of Philadelphia has served more than 685,000 students in its history, a staggering number. Making community college free would remove another barrier to higher education and, the Obama administration contends, help to close the income gap.

2. A Higher Minimum Wage

What Obama said:

And to everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.

Why it matters for Philly: Philadelphia has the highest level of deep poverty of any of the 10 biggest cities in the nation. There are nearly 185,000 residents in Philadelphia getting by on less than $10,000 a year. Most economists agree that raising the minimum wage would reduce poverty, and reducing poverty is probably the single best thing that could happen to Philadelphia. City Council seems primed to take on the minimum wage issue itself this (election) year, and some advocates want a Philly rate as high as $15 an hour (the federal minimum is $7.25). But it’s not clear that the city even has the authority to raise the minimum wage. And if Philly were to raise its minimum wage while other cities and counties did not, it may well end up chasing businesses outside of the city. Far better for Philadelphia if the minimum wage were raised at the federal level.

3. Paid Sick Leave

What Obama said:

Today, we’re the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers. Forty-three million workers have no paid sick leave. Forty-three million. Think about that. And that forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home. So I’ll be taking new action to help states adopt paid leave laws of their own. And since paid sick leave won where it was on the ballot last November, let’s put it to a vote right here in Washington. Send me a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave. It’s the right thing to do.

Why it matters for Philly: City Council and Mayor Nutter look to be on the verge of a deal that would give the city it’s own paid sick leave policy (if state lawmakers don’t get in the way). But as with the minimum wage, these sorts of employee protections can make the city seem less competitive to business owners when other counties don’t have the same requirements. A national paid sick leave law would solve that problem.

4. Infrastructure Investment

What Obama said:

21st century businesses need 21st century infrastructure — modern ports, stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest internet. Democrats and Republicans used to agree on this. So let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline. Let’s pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than thirty times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for decades to come.

Why it matters for Philly: Infrastructure investment is important everywhere, of course, but Philadelphia’s infrastructure shortcomings are particularly acute (rotting gas lines, rusting water mains, old bridges and ancient tracks). Philadelphia may also stand to benefit more than any other city in the nation if high speed rail were to come to the Northeast Corridor (or maybe “benefit” isn’t the right word, considering that 37-minute commutes to NYC would surely lead to hordes of New Yorkers decamping here).

And The Whiffs?

The state of K-12 education is Philadelphia’s most-pressing problem right now, and in many other big cities as well. Obama barely made mention of schools. He also, rather surprisingly, only touched very lightly on the racial discord and deepening suspicion of police that we’re seeing in cities across the country.

What Obama said:

“We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift. Surely we can agree it’s a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together…”

That was it.