To move the needle on the Philly’s intractable status as the poorest big city in the U.S., officials are heading out of City Hall and into the neighborhoods.
Launched Thursday, the Special Committee on Poverty has an ambitious goal: Get 100,000 Philadelphians out of poverty over the next five years. That’s roughly a quarter of the population estimated to be living below the federal poverty line.
The committee proposes to move at a fast pace. By the end of the year — two and a half months from now — it hopes to have a report ready with three to five concrete policy recommendations.
Co-chair Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said the recommendations will not be sweeping new programs or economic silver bullets. Rather, she hopes the committee will identify ways to fix what she describes as the broken bureaucratic processes that prevent people from taking advantage of existing programs.
“We sit here in Council and pass all this legislation, and then the bureaucrats operationalize it and we limit people’s access to the opportunities we tried to create,” Quiñones-Sánchez said.
The short timeframe will hopefully spur swift action. Council loves to start task forces and special committees — many of which languish for months or years without arriving at meaningful policy solutions.
According to Quiñones-Sánchez and co-chair Council President Clarke, Thursday’s committee meeting will be one of five in total. Three of them will take place not in City Council chambers, but in yet-to-be-determined neighborhoods.
Several of the city’s existing programs are underutilized, said Quiñones-Sánchez, like the Homestead Exemption, a perk that can save homeowners about $620 a year on their property tax bill, and the LOOP program, which offers tax relief to long-time home occupants whose property assessments have skyrocketed. Even programs designed to save customers money on their utility bills are seeing under-enrollment, Quiñones-Sánchez said.
“We know who’s poor. We know where they live. We have these programs. We’ve got to connect the dots,” she added.
With an issue as expansive as poverty, they’ll have something of a guiding star: Council released a report in March that named 27 recommendations for poverty prevention and alleviation.
“It’s not like we’re starting from scratch,” Sharmain Matlock-Turner, president of the Urban Affairs Coalition and a co-chair on the committee, told Billy Penn. “There are some real good ideas that are already here that have been vetted. They’ve looked at other cities to see how they’ve used these strategies. What we want to hear from the public is ‘are these the right ideas?’”
The initiatives will happen independently of other economic mobility initiatives lawmakers are advancing around this issue. Councilmember Allan Domb, who sat in on Thursday’s meeting, recently introduced a bill that could provide $27 million in tax breaks to low-income Philadelphians.
Mel Wells, president of One Day at a Time, a drug and alcohol recovery center in North Philadelphia, is also on the committee, as is Eva Gladstein, a deputy managing director for Health and Human Services in the Kenney administration.
Council has divided the group into three subcommittees with distinct focuses: housing, jobs and education, and a “social safety net.”
Those subcommittees will include over a hundred members in total.