Enough With the Free Turkeys, Politicians — Get Serious About Reducing Poverty

Owens: City officials have put a Band-Aid on our poverty epidemic for far too long.

The older I get, the more I realize that for all of the progress Philadelphia prides itself on, there is still so much that needs to be done.

As I look around my West Philly neighborhood, not enough has changed in recent years to end the harsh realities facing inner-city Philadelphians each day. Every morning when I catch the Market-Frankford SEPTA line down 52nd Street, I pass by the same guys on the corner who are selling drugs as a way to survive. They’re young, black and unemployed — they’re partaking in a hustle that I’ve learned to not judge given that they’re not afforded many other alternatives. When entering the station, I also encounter similar traumatic images of homeless individuals sleeping near the stairwell.

And yet, each year our local elected officials give out turkeys instead of legislation to address the poverty that’s been plaguing our city for decades now. There’s something symbolic about this well-meaning tradition: It’s a Band-Aid on an epidemic, an action meant to look good (and make elected officials feel good), but that actually does very little. We’re still the poorest major city in the nation, and almost nothing has changed since officials announced an anti-poverty plan in 2013. 

Yes, Mayor Jim Kenney has spoken adamantly about addressing poverty. Sure, there have been initiatives aimed at seeking solutions. But in a town where we have a Democratic political machine that is all too powerful for its own damn good, there’s no reason why we haven’t seen more movement in fixing this crisis.

I get it: Tackling poverty isn’t sexy. It isn’t the kind of issue that comes with lobbyists peddling money. But it is our city’s biggest problem — and will be our downfall — if we don’t get serious about putting our money and resources where our mouth is. It’s commendable that the city has expanded pre-K this year, which will help to reverse generational poverty. But almost 13 percent, or roughly 200,000 Philadelphians, are in deep poverty. We also have have stagnant local officials who haven’t offered new solutions to reducing poverty, and an anti-Philly GOP legislature that has stripped dire resources and funding from our communities. And let’s not forget that our former Mayor Michael Nutter didn’t really do much to stop poverty in its tracks.

When we discuss gun violence, a starving public school system and high unemployment rates, we’re inadvertently talking about the consequences of a city impacted by deep poverty. We can no longer put the cart before the horse when advocating for these causes without addressing poverty itself. It’s killing our future, literally.

Earlier this month, I was invited to attend the annual Urban Affairs Coalition breakfast at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. There, hundreds of the city’s most powerful and influential leaders mingled freely. There were current elected officials, former mayors, and all of the big nonprofit CEOs and corporate interests stuffing their mouths with catered entrees and passing out cards without a sweat.

In the event program, there was a long list of young professionals called “Friends of the Coalition,” who were being recognized for donating at least $1,000 annually to the organization. What if those same leaders put that funding and networking into political strategies that would end poverty long-term rather than offer another temporary Band-Aid approach? Giving $1,000 might feel good — and it might help in a small way — but it does little to address systemic problems like the drastic underfunding of our city’s schools in Harrisburg.

I’ve made a personal promise to myself that I’m no longer going to keep watching turkey drives come through my community that seem more designed for cheesy television news stories and photo-ops than for the good of my neighbors. Instead, I’m going to tell my elected officials to get real about addressing the problem and not the symptom. For far too long, I’ve seen local government put Band-Aids on these concerns, instead of leveraging the integrity, strategic prowess and political willpower it takes to do something more effective.

I don’t have all of the answers (though experts like Otis Bullock, Jr. seem to be get getting somewhere). But what I do know is that my taxpayer dollars help pay for elected officials in City Hall and Harrisburg to come up with such solutions. It’s about time they put the turkeys down and put the action plans up in order to fix the biggest issue facing our city.

Ernest Owens, the editor of Philadelphia magazine’s G Philly channel, writes regularly for BET and other major publications. You can reach him at gphilly@phillymag.com and on Twitter @MrErnestOwens.