Insider: Mayor-to-Be Kenney, Please Make Poverty a Cabinet-Level Priority

Bullock: Mayors have the power to make a difference on huge problems ... when they make it a priority.


Photo | Bradley Maule

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider.)

Philadelphia’s problematic poverty rate is an issue that demands strong action, and a cabinet-level position to address poverty is exactly the kind of strong action our next mayor must take.

I believe that a Mayor can accomplish anything if he tries; even reducing Philadelphia’s embarrassing poverty rate in a major way. Call me naïve, but I believe it. We know the numbers. But for those who need a refresher: Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the nation. From 2007-2013, Philadelphia’s poverty rate rose from 24 percent to 28 percent. Just last year, we finally got the needle moving in the right direction, as the rate declined to 26 percent. But that number is still very high. More than 12 percent live in deep poverty.

Philadelphia cannot be a world class city with poverty rates this abysmal. While it was nice to have the Pope, I’d rather have lower poverty rates.

And I know the next mayor can do it, if he tries. I have seen firsthand what a mayor can do when he takes an issue on as a top priority and appoints a cabinet-level position to make sure that it happens. I’ve seen the Nutter administration do it with ethics and crime. Everyone knows Mayor Nutter’s record on ethics.

Let’s talk about what he did on crime.

Ramsey’s Crime Plan

The very first thing Mayor Nutter did when he took office in January 2008 was request that his cabinet-level Police Commissioner present a crime plan to him. The crime plan was just that, a plan. It’s what Mayor Nutter did with the plan that made it work. During regular PhillyStat meetings, every city agency had to report its organizational outcomes to a very high level panel that included members of the Mayor’s Cabinet. The question of the day was always, “What are you doing to support Commissioner Ramsey’s Crime Plan?”

It didn’t matter if you were from the Streets Department, Sanitation, Licenses and Inspections, or the Mayor’s Office of Community Services (MOCS). You needed to have an acceptable answer to that question, and you were held accountable for it as well. “Oh, you thought your job was just to clean the streets? Nope! Your job is to clean the streets in a way that supports Commissioner Ramsey’s Crime Plan.” The result of this approach has been nothing short of remarkable:

  • By December 31, 2008, murders were down 15 percent and violent crime was down three percent.
  • In Ramsey’s first year, Philadelphia had 332 murders compared to 392 in 2007.
  • By 2013, the homicide count dropped to 247, the lowest total since 1967.

This was possible for two very important reasons. One, Mayor Nutter took crime on as a top priority. Two, he followed through by assigning a cabinet-level official to not only provide a comprehensive vision for every other city department, but de facto authority over their processes that would lead to a lower crime and murder rate. The same was done for Nutter’s ethics agenda and his cabinet-level Chief Integrity Officer. No such thing was done for poverty. Hence, our reigning disgrace as the nation’s poorest city.

As a young deputy executive director at the Mayor’s Office of Community Services (MOCS), I dreaded going to PhillyStat meetings. MOCS was the city’s anti-poverty agency, now renamed the Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment & Opportunity (CEO). I knew that I would be asked what my agency was doing to support Ramsey’s Crime Plan. The other question that I dreaded was, “Can you commit to reducing the poverty rate by 10 percent?” My answer was always an angry and disappointing “no”. Why not? For starters, I have no control over the Office of Supportive Housing, the Office of Housing & Community Development, the Department of Human Services, the Mayor’s Office of Education, Recreation, and many other city departments that are supposed to contribute to the reduction of poverty. There was no cabinet-level position that forced them to coordinate. There was no clear vision for the reduction of poverty and a person with the authority to force all city departments to support it, like the crime plan and the ethics agenda.

A Comprehensive Vision with Authority

That is why the issue of poverty must have a seat in the Mayor’s Cabinet. Thanks to the newly formed Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment & Opportunity (CEO), the city finally has a vision and framework to address poverty in Philadelphia. CEO’s “Shared Prosperity” plan is a great start to address the issue of poverty. But it has to have teeth. If he wants to give it teeth, the next mayor could make the executive director of CEO a part of his Cabinet. That would show us that he is serious about Philadelphia’s poverty problem.

Everything else is just lip service.

I understand that likely next mayor Jim Kenney is a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to the structure of city government. He wants a structure that is more in line with the city charter. Kenney is not a big fan of Mayor Nutter’s robust system of all-powerful deputy mayors. Neither am I. However, what I am proposing does not require hiring a bunch of deputy mayors. The importance of addressing our quiet crisis called poverty is so high, I am afraid that we will never adequately address the issue without giving it cabinet-level authority.

Eva Gladstein, executive director for CEO, has done an admirable job. The vision is there. CEO has set forth a vision that takes a coordinated and collaborative approach to fighting poverty. By elevating CEO to cabinet-level status, it allows the next mayor to be much more effective in his coordination of poverty reduction efforts. It says that he is trying.

Please, Mayor. Show us that you’re trying. Make poverty a cabinet-level priority.

Otis Bullock, Jr. is an attorney and Executive Director of Diversified Community Services. He is a member of Philadelphia Community of Leaders, and worked for City Council and Mayor Nutter. Otis lives in Strawberry Mansion with his wife State Rep. Donna Bullock and two children.