Insider: Progressives Are “Out of Touch” With the Fact That Jobs Are a Social Justice Issue
(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider. Steinke is a Democrat who ran for City Council At-Large in the 2015 primary election. He was previously the general manager of the Reading Terminal Market.)
Why don’t more good people run for public office?
I heard this question more times than can be counted in the years I contemplated a run for Philadelphia City Council. The Democratic primary election of 2015 seemed, at first, to be a perfect opportunity: It was an open-seat mayoral race in which two City Council seats were up for grabs, which meant it was likely to stimulate voter turnout and draw more voters to the polls.
That didn’t happen.
After serving as general manager of the Reading Terminal Market for 13 years, the beloved local landmark had been brought to high national esteem. Secure in knowing I’d be leaving the market in great shape, I quit my job in January to continue my lifelong quest to promote and improve my hometown from a seat in City Council.
Five months later, my campaign unsuccessful, I look back on my whirlwind tour of the city with wonder and affection. I had a blast. I found a vibrant city full of active, engaged, and concerned citizens, proud of their neighborhoods but worried about the future — about their local schools, the safety of their streets, the shabbiness of their neighborhood commercial districts, and their ability to make ends meet in a long-stagnant city economy.
Starting the first week of January, my days very quickly filled up with six to eight hours of fundraising calls, on top of numerous political meetings, breakfasts and lunches I hadn’t had time for while running the Market. My nights consisted mainly of ward events, civic association meetings, fundraisers, candidate forums and house parties across the city, along with any events I found in the Public Record or Uncle Charlie Bernard’s Big Top — the ultimate party insider calendar provided periodically by email to a select few.
As a lifelong Philadelphian who has always loved this city, it was an awe-inspiring experience to visit corners of far-reaching neighborhoods I had never walked before. Travelling the church circuit, a hallowed political tradition here, was so enlightening an experience that I’d venture to say one does not truly know Philadelphia if one has not toured its churches.
I attended events with names like “Shrimp-a-palooza,” along with numerous fish fry fundraisers, just to get my face in front of as many Philadelphia super voters as possible.
Then came the period in mid-February through early-March designated for collecting nominating petition signatures. As other Citified Insiders have noted, it’s not easy to collect 1,000 clearly valid signatures under normal circumstances. Collecting in a polar vortex was rough. As a first-time candidate and political outsider, I didn’t have the advantage of ready-made campaign infrastructure. My team was built from scratch and skeletal through the end. I am forever grateful to the volunteers who knew ours was an uphill climb, and still knocked on doors and stood outside supermarkets in single-digit temperatures collecting signatures.
(And for anyone who wonders why local elections are rarely nasty: Running into political rivals and a myriad judicial candidates at petition parties is one hell of a bonding experience.)
My campaign touched on all major issues facing the city, but was concentrated on neighborhood revitalization, tax reform, and job creation. A no-brainer pitch in the most impoverished big city in America, right? Wrong.
I was frequently surprised at the reception my economic development message received, especially among self-described progressives. It was as if my platform to ensure more Philadelphians had family-sustaining jobs was a concern of economic elites, out of touch with the needs of everyday Philadelphians. Some people seemed to view me as if I were a Republican, even though I am an organized-labor supporting Democrat who has advocated and raised funds for social justice my entire adult life.
I began to see that traditional Philly progressives appear to be out of touch with the fact that jobs are very much a social justice issue.
“Everyone wants more jobs, but nobody wants to support business,” a supporter told me on the campaign trail.
This — to be polite — is insane.
Visit a North Philly neighborhood where more than half of residents are unemployed, and you will hear very little cynicism about job growth. Nevertheless, a good job with a living wage is somehow not viewed as a civil right in our society. This is where government comes in. The health of every municipality and state — even the nation — is measured first and foremost by job and wage growth. Good-quality employment enables families to provide for their children, supports safe, stable and well-maintained neighborhoods, and represents the best path to avoid or fully exit the criminal justice system. Jobs also generate economic growth through consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of all economic activity.
Jobs are at the heart of so much that we want for our city, because they generate tax revenues to pay for government services and public schools. Tax revenues come from three sources: employment, taxable businesses and taxable real estate. In my view, Philadelphia’s most pressing problem is that it has too little of all three, and therefore too small a tax base to support not just what we need, such as quality public education, but much of what Philadelphians want, including modern transit, regular street cleaning and first-class parks and libraries.
Philadelphia’s tragically high rate of poverty — the highest of the nation’s 10 largest cities — is a reality in a city that has seen 27 percent net job loss over the past 50 years. Job growth has occurred primarily in the suburbs, where places like Bala Cynwyd, Cherry Hill and Plymouth Meeting have been transformed from orchards and farm fields into the primary engines of regional economic growth.
To be sure, these trends have occurred in every other big city in America. But they are worse here.
Philadelphia taxes its citizens at a higher rate than any other big city in the country, and it also has the nation’s highest wage tax. Thirty-seven percent of its working citizens commute to jobs in the suburbs. Our unemployment rate remains stubbornly higher than the state’s and nation’s. Philadelphia creates fewer new businesses than the national average and its businesses do not grow as quickly. Meanwhile, our schools are chronically underfunded and our city services and crumbling infrastructure beg for additional resources.
Isn’t it time we tried a different approach?
I believe that progressives need to incorporate equitable job creation and economic growth into their thinking, alongside the worthy goals of universal equality, reducing violence and advancing civil rights.
That’s why I hope the good people who ran and succeeded in winning the primary election — our presumptive next mayor and City Council — will aggressively support and work toward steep reductions in the wage and business profits tax, replacing the lost tax revenue with an increase in commercial property tax rates. This is the essence of the recent proposal from the Philadelphia Growth Coalition of business and labor leaders.
We have to get the city’s economy growing again if we ever hope to stem the tide of unemployment, poverty, abandonment, blight and crime that plague too many of our neighborhoods. And we have to get the city’s economy growing again if we ever hope to have the resources we need to fully fund schools, services, pensions and infrastructure.
There is no substitute for prosperity. And the opportunity to prosper in America, including in Philadelphia, is as much a civil right as anything else.