By: Nick Santangelo

Much of Philadelphia may have experienced explosive growth in the years after the Great Recession, but that growth has not occurred equitably across the city. Far from it, Temple University’s home is plagued by a poverty rate of 25.7 percent, the worst among America’s 10 largest cities and more than twice the national average.

To address the crisis, College of Liberal Arts Public Policy Lab Director Judith Levine joined a group of academic, economic, non-profit and political leaders at last week’s Prosperity Symposium at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Dr. Levine spoke as part of the symposium’s Research to Practice panel along with panelists from Yale University, the Reinvestment Fund, the United Way and Swarthmore College.

"The Prosperity Symposium was a highly engaging discussion that brought together advocates, academics, politicians and non-profit leaders to brainstorm about what is needed to fight poverty in Philadelphia,” Dr. Levine said following the panel. “A major focus of the event was identifying what factors outside of the traditional facts and figures we need to pay attention to in order to make meaningful change. It’s this kind of inter-disciplinary approach, steeped in multi-method evidence, that the Public Policy Lab will apply to understanding poverty, inequality and a host of related social challenges."

Well Done Is Better Than Well Meant

During the panel, Stephanie Hoopes, who directs the United Way’s ALICE Project, explained that the problem is even worse than the ominous 25.7 percent figure makes it sound. Another 30 percent of Philadelphians, explained Hoopes, are employed but making such low wages that they can’t support their families. Because federal policies tend to only focus on bringing people above the lowest levels of poverty, she said, it’s no wonder these policies fall short.

And even well-meaning federal and state politicians fail to understand the unique nuances of Philadelphia’s poverty crisis. Swarthmore Centennial Professor Philip Jefferson pointed out that “if you really want to combat the problem of bringing down the poverty rate in Philadelphia, you really have to target neighborhoods.”

Dr. Levine agreed, saying that some Philadelphia neighborhoods, alarmingly, had poverty rates as high as 61 percent. She also noted that the city’s child poverty rate, while falling, is still dangerously high at 31.9 percent and that poverty rates are highest among blacks, Latinos and Asians (the latter of which is unusual in America). And many poor people distrust politicians and municipal workers thanks to a lifetime of hearing them regurgitate negative stereotypes about the poor and having them promise benefits that don’t materialize.

“There are some very highly trained policymakers who think very carefully about policy incentives,” said Dr. Levine. “But if you don’t talk to the people these policies are going to affect and if you don’t pay attention to the communities these policies will affect, they will not trust that the policies will benefit them and then that beautiful crafting doesn’t mean anything.”

Yale University Sterling Professor Elijah Anderson concurred that policy authors need to spend time in poverty-stricken areas. By observing and listening, they can better understand what the systematic questions they should be asking in their pursuit of poverty solutions. This is particularly important here in The City of Neighborhoods.

everyone in this room thinks neighborhood matters

The panelists also discussed the complex relationship between research and policy development. Part of the problem is that representative studies don’t always have the depth needed to show nuanced factors while more qualitative studies powerfully show these factors but cannot prove them.

“Does neighborhood matter? I think everyone in this room thinks neighborhood matters, but no one has definitively proven that,” said Dr. Levine. “If someone moves from one neighborhood to another and does better, we don’t know for sure if that’s due to the neighborhood or the individual. An experiment designed to answer this question provided some key clues, but fell short of settling the issue once and for all.”

Progress Is the Best Policy

The solution, said Dr. Levine, is to just keep plugging away. Research is an iterative process and putting together multiple studies with different approaches builds knowledge.

Echoing Dr. Levine’s belief in the need for more multi-method research, Ira Goldstein, president of policy solutions at the Reinvestment Fund, advocated for in-depth studies that mix quantitative and qualitative study. One study the Reinvestment Fund is currently working through involves spending time in Philadelphia courtrooms to understand the city’s eviction problem.

“It’s very illuminating to be able to witness the power dynamics between people in the court and lawyers,” said Goldstein. While many eviction court outcomes appear “administratively simple,” he said, they’re often misunderstood by tenants facing eviction and can negatively affect their lives for years to come.

Goldstein shares Dr. Levine’s viewpoint that policies should be refined as more research information is acquired. That necessitates the constant evaluation of new research data and development of fact-based policy.

Specifically, Dr. Levine referenced a University of Chicago study that examined low-income mothers working retail jobs. The study found that constantly shifting work schedules wreaked havoc on mothers’ abilities to properly budget for paying bills and to effectively schedule childcare. But when schedules were set a month in advance, explained Dr. Levine, the working mothers were able to better manage their bills and childcare. They also became more committed to their jobs, which impressed employers who were eager to minimize costly staff turnover.

Here in Philadelphia, City Council recently passed “Fair Workweek” legislation that mandates such work schedule predictability.

It took many years to create these problems

It’s a relatively small change that can have a major impact. But Philadelphia and the U.S. at large will need to find more structural solutions to solve the poverty crisis. Policymakers will have to consider how policies like an Economic Bill of Rights or universal basic income fit into American values.

Wherever those or other solutions might fit, though, the reality is that poverty will take time to overcome.

“It took many years to create these problems, and it will take many years to resolve them,” concluded Goldstein. “But we have to keep making positive progress.”

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