Mayor Nutter’s Shared Prosperity Plan Is Big, Bold and Possible

Mayor's latest Big Idea: Drive the poverty rate down. He's done pretty well putting his previous big ideas into action.

Just imagine: 25,000 more jobs in the city two years hence. One hundred new jobs for low-skill Philadelphians each year. And much lower unemployment, with the city’s rate coming closer to the nation’s.

These may be the most important of the many ambitious targets set in Mayor Michael Nutter’s “Shared Prosperity” initiative, announced this past Thursday. There are many more like them in the plan’s five areas of concern: jobs and training, access to benefits, learning preparedness, housing security and economic security. The ultimate goal: to drive the city’s appalling 28 percent poverty rate down by ensuring poorer Philadelphians are connected to the benefits they qualify for, are better able to manage their households and finances, and obtain good jobs with potential for advancement.

Tall order? You bet. Unreachable? Unrealistic? Not at all.

Consider what’s been happening in Northeast Ohio of late. There, a network of private foundations has connected educators, service agencies and manufacturers to train workers for skilled jobs that require only a high school education and training in a science, techology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) field. Working with businesses in the region’s four metropolitan areas — Cleveland, Toledo, Akron and Youngstown — the network has produced 10,000 new jobs and added $333 million to local payrolls over a nine-year period. And the jobs aren’t menial either: They offer decent wages, opportunities to advance, or both.

These kinds of partnerships that combine public-sector commitment and private-sector know-how are the foundation for what a new book has dubbed The Metropolitan Revolution — a movement where cities and their metropolitan regions are taking the initiative to solve the problems Washington can’t and restore our still-sick national economy to good health. The book’s authors were in town last Thursday — the same day Mayor Nutter unveiled Shared Prosperity — to give examples of regionalism at work and discuss with local experts how greater Philadelphia could harness its strengths to lead this revolution and move it forward.

You’d be forgiven if you hadn’t noticed that Mayor Nutter has been putting forth a slew of initiatives aimed at nothing less than municipal transformation that will outlive his tenure in office almost from the beginning; the sturm und drang over taxes, cuts in city services and AVI probably distracted you. Shared Prosperity is only the latest of these, and while the initiative has identified some immediate short-term changes that can be achieved, it is also focused on effecting long-term change in the way the city serves its citizens — and its citizens relate to the city and one another.

There are a number of challenges on the road to achieving Shared Prosperity’s goals. On the jobs front, for instance, there’s the problem of reintroducing ex-convicts into the workforce. The plan uses a new “ban the box” law that prohibits employers from asking whether applicants have been convicted of crimes as a starting point and will work with both city and nonprofit agencies to boost and monitor its effectiveness. Of course, solving this problem will also require the private sector to become a partner in solving it, both by creating the kinds of jobs prisoners returning to civilian life can hold, and by overcoming their fear of hiring ex-convicts.

Shared Prosperity’s success will also require a change in the way people think around here. “Leave your cynicism at the door, for it’s time to think big thoughts,” said The Metropolitan Revolution co-author Bruce Katz at last Thursday’s panel discussion at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. If the mayor has done nothing else in his time in office, he has definitely done that, and Shared Prosperity is merely the latest in a long line of big thoughts translated into new policy directions — some of which, such as “Green City, Clean Waters,” already serve as national models.

If there’s an Achilles heel in Shared Prosperity, it’s the same one that afflicts all of the mayor’s other game-changing ideas: our historic inability or unwillingness to forge the kind of partnerships needed to reach such ambitious goals. Mayor Nutter has demonstrated a keen interest in rewriting that history, and so far, a good number of his efforts have shown results — such as making the Navy Yard a job center again.

Given the mayor’s track record so far on advancing his big ideas, there’s no reason to believe that  Shared Prosperity will not ultimately also prove successful, even if it takes longer than first thought to reach its goals. To those who remain skeptical, I have one question: What do they know in Cleveland that we don’t?