Philly Is Number One

For once, Philadelphia found itself at the very top of a Top 10 list. Unfortunately, it's not a title we want to have

I had a different idea planned for this space, but then I read a news story this week, one that could have been easily missed amidst all the noise about Carl Greene and Michael Vick and the joy of the Phillies clinching the division.

Philadelphia is the poorest of the country’s 10 largest cities.

That was the news story.

Not among the poorest—the poorest. [SIGNUP]

And if reading that wasn’t psychologically crippling enough, the drill-down in the report was even more distressing.

The overall poverty rate in Philadelphia—25 percent.

The number of kids living in poverty in Philadelphia?

One in three.

Numbers and stats can often be numbing for readers, but these are digits that pack a punch.

So while we’re here facing the bad news, let’s get it all out of the way at once: (1) the high school dropout rate in Philadelphia hovers between 40 and 50-percent, and (2) 52 percent of all working- age Philadelphians lack what are considered necessary workforce literacy skills (meaning more than half the grown ups in our city struggle to follow written instructions, like the kind on a job application).

This is not the Philadelphia any of us wants to read about.

And because bad news like this has a way of slipping under our radar, or maybe because we figure it doesn’t affect us directly, many of us don’t.

Philadelphia, as you’ve surely heard expressed before, is a tale of two cities—and it’s a lot easier to reside physically and emotionally in the one without the desperately sad truths.

Ask those who live in even the more slightly economically upbeat sectors of the city about Philadelphia and most will respond in the positive, citing affordability, the small-town-in-a-big-city flavor, the bourgeoning restaurant scene, the proximity to New York and D.C., etc.

You know the litany. It’s one many Philadelphians cite by rote when asked why they choose to live here, the go-to crib sheet when having to deal with friends who think they live in more culturally elite cities, like New York, Chicago or Boston.

And the good thing about the litany of Philadelphia positives is this: it all rings true.

It just conveniently leaves out Philadelphia’s hardest truth: pain and suffering is growing and spreading here, and if we don’t find a way to make it stop it could overwhelm any chance for a stable, let alone bright, Philadelphia future.

Time, complex conditions and experiences create poverty, and some is no doubt self-inflicted, which is why there’s no silver bullet to combat it. It takes a flood of grit and resources simply to slow, let alone reverse, a tide as powerful as the rising poverty in our midst. But if I was the city’s designated superhero out to make all things right, I’d load up a pouch with literacy-dipped darts and hunt down all the city’s kids first.

At Mighty Writers, the literacy center where I work, we like to say our mission is to teach kids to write with clarity. And we do. But what we do first is teach kids to think with clarity, because when you think clearly, lucid writing just naturally follows.

Other good things happen, too—things like stability and self-worth, poise and buoyancy. Kids become kinder and gentler as their confidence and ability to express what and how they feel grows.

Stop by, I’ll show you. I see it every day.

In tough times like these, it’s tempting to want to focus all available resources on a single solution. Job creation is critical and would go a long way to solve our immediate crisis.

But here in Philadelphia, there’s a much wider playing field of problems to consider. Those with kids in our city schools know that better than anyone.

There’s a quote from Maya Angelou we use all the time at Mighty Writers: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Funny thing is, you can’t be a kid in Philadelphia without having all kinds of untold stories inside you. Look around. Stories are everywhere.

Finding ways to have our city’s kids tell their stories might not solve our poverty crisis all by itself, but I wouldn’t go underestimating the power and magic that comes with releasing those stories either.

Tim Whitaker (, a writer and editor, is the executive director of Mighty Writers.