KWRU and the Poor People's March at the RNC

Watch Democracy Now!'s interview with Cheri Honkala, National Organizer with the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign and Executive Director of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, and footage of their march organized outside the Xcel Energy Center. Also see the IMC video report.

RELATED: Al Jazeera video on KWRU II Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign and their updated blog II DN!'s Amy Goodman, Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar Released After Illegal Arrest at RNC

Poverty and “social dysfunction” in Philadelphia

In another thread Sean a.k.a MrLuigi wrote:

“"Poverty" is kind of too vague a word for the multiple layers of social dysfunction that plague our city and feed into the cycle of violence. If it were simply "poverty" you could just write everyone a big check and they would stop shooting at each other over petty beefs. The young men shooting each other in this city are almost never killing each other because they literally can't afford to eat. Its a way more nefarious web of broken family structures, broken schools, chronic unemployment, drug enforcement that says "its OK to push this illicit economy into those kinds of neighborhoods, and culture of misplaced bravado and shallow materialism. If we dump everything into the word "poverty" without being more specific, its no longer targeted enough to do much good terms of figuring out the "how" of urban violence. Its not just lack of dollars that makes Philly's mean streets mean, its a very particular system of failure of the social fabric. That said there are million and one things we can do to direct people away from crime and the underground activity before they feel that their only choice. There are a million and two things to make sure they have other options once they do get caught up in it and, as eventually happens, they get busted.”

Sean, I may be reading you wrong but I find the distinction you draw between poverty and “social dysfunction” a bit too elegant.

When people are generous, but a society is short-sighted

Last week the Inquirer posted a powerful story about the struggles of the region’s working poor. Their particularly compelling case of Sandra Walerski and her family, who shops on $25-45/ week, drew a follow up in yesterday’s paper as dozens of people nationwide offered contributions to the family, including a surgeon who offered to consult Ms. Walerski about a brain tumor, Delaware County Community College officials who were considering an academic scholarship for the Walerski’s 20 year old son, and even a mention by John McCain.

It goes to show that people are extremely generous and compassionate about poverty; they want the situation addressed. They’re even willing to give up their own money to do it. The only problem is there are 300,000 some Sandra Walerskis in Philadelphia alone. This is not a problem for individuals to tackle but a deep-rooted problem for our city and region.

On Wednesday, members of One Philadelphia went to City Council to talk about a real program to provide relief to struggling families – revive the Cohen tax credit currently targeted for elimination by the City. They took a beating for it, but their argument stands: poverty is growing in Philadelphia and families need and deserve help.

The Cohen tax credit is a cornerstone in tackling poverty in our neighborhoods. Consider the argument made by Jonathan Stein in yesterday’s Daily News:

The rebate would make the 80-year-old regressive wage tax more equitable by helping struggling and working families just like the successful programs it's modeled on: the federal Earned Income Tax Credit and state Tax Back program. It was one of the greatest progressive reforms in City Council history. Cohen was proud of Council, including one of the co-sponsors of the rebate, then-Councilman Nutter. From on high, Cohen likely applauded the new mayor's inaugural promise of a "new Philadelphia" committed to "moving hundreds of thousands out of poverty and on to a better life."

The rebate would do that by putting money directly to families making less than twice of the poverty line - about $35,000 a year for a family of three.
The Pathways PA "self-sufficiency standard" says such a family needs $44,000 a year to make ends meet - no vacations, no car, no eating out, just basics.

A three-person family earning $25,500 a year, qualifying for a full state Tax Back refund, still pays $950 in city wage taxes.

Of the 300,000 working poor in Philadelphia, an overwhelming number are families in our public schools. If the figure that over 35% of Philadelphia’s children live in poverty doesn't humble you enough, consider that the majority of schools in Philadelphia have poverty rates in the 90th percentiles.

We know firsthand the consequences of poverty in our schools. We know the ways that our children suffer from poverty at home: when the utilities are shut off, is homework really a possibility? When a single mother is working two jobs and affordable daycare is out of reach, who’s coming to the parent teacher conference? When immigrant children are packed two or three families to a household, do we really expect someone to complete a science project on time? Last Christmas, my daughter’s own classmate was suddenly rendered homeless, and it made me realize how little a priority school can be.

We still need to keep the pressure on about the many reasons why the Cohen tax credit remains important. It has its ledger costs, yes, of course, but let's make no mistake that its elimination is something we’ll be paying for many times over.

300,000 Reasons to support the Cohen Working Tax Credit

Today’s Inquirer features a story on one of the 300,000 estimated working poor who live in Philadelphia.

There are perhaps 300,000 such people (including children) in Philadelphia and about 686,000 in the 10-county region, according to Bill Clark, executive director of Philabundance, which he described as the largest hunger-relief agency in the area.

Nationally, there are roughly 52 million working poor people, says David Elesh, a sociology professor at Temple University. "And," he adds, "it's getting worse each day because of this recession."

Federal guidelines set the poverty level for a family of four at $21,200. To be considered working poor, such a family could make as much as $42,400 annually.

When Asian Americans United joined the numerous supporters of David Cohen’s Working Tax Credit, we had to overcome the stereotype of people asking why the “model minority” would care. But in many Asian and immigrant communities, a huge population would easily be considered working poor. In a Chinatown Needs Assessment Survey conducted by AAU, 70 percent of respondents said they worked 10 to 12 hours per day, six to seven day a week and earned less than $2,000 a month.

While homelessness is often made visible by people living on the street, numerous immigrant families may also qualify as “homeless” if you consider the overcrowded households because people can’t afford their own homes and double or triple up with relatives.

One Philadelphia, Community Legal Services, Philadelphia Unemployment Project, and many others have made a push on the issue. But it could use a lot more help. You can help revive the importance of the Cohen Working Tax Credit by also writing a letter to the editor to the Inquirer on the issue: letters.inquirer@phillynews.com.

The administration comes out swinging for the BPT cuts, Maria Quinones Sanchez is at bat for everyone else

As sad as I am that Irv lost last May, I am proportionately that happy that Maria is in City Council advocating for her district and all the people in this city who keep being left behind as this city's rising tide lifts only some boats.

City Council signaled yesterday that Mayor Nutter would have a difficult time deep-sixing already approved wage-tax cuts for the working poor to help pay for his proposed business-tax cuts.

At least five Council members said in a budget hearing yesterday that they flat-out opposed or were deeply skeptical of calls to eliminate the so-called David Cohen tax credit, which was championed by the former city councilman, who died two years ago.

"With an acknowledged rate of 25 percent of our citizens in poverty, I'm not satisfied that we're presenting a budget where we are more aggressive on our business-tax cuts," said Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sanchez.

So far, the budget is good in many ways, and generally restrained. But that doesn't mean that criticism should be muted if it is due. Stan has been prescient on this:

Cohen's low-income tax credit isn't slated to go into effect until 2013, and its impact on the city's current five-year plan - the subject of yesterday's hearing - is minimal. But after the tax credit has been phased in, it will cost the city about $80.8 million in 2016, and the annual cost will continue to go up.

"It starts to take off and become a very sizable cost," said Steve Agostini, the Nutter administration's budget director. "You know, if folks want to . . . debate that, that's entirely legitimate, but we just want them to understand there's a price tag associated with it."

The administration's view is that its broader plan for wage-tax relief will benefit lower-income residents, in addition to other taxpayers. The city's wage tax was at 4.96 percent when the Cohen tax credit was adopted. Scheduled reductions to the tax rate and statewide casino revenue are expected to lower that rate to 3.11 percent by 2013.

Council members asked whether it would be possible to slow the city's scheduled wage-tax reduction rate in order to fund the tax credit for the working poor. Nutter's representatives acknowledged that was possible.

And I think priorities are a valid subject for debate and criticism.

Broken windows, broken record

Ramsey's 21-page crime plan is, 10 or so pages of filler aside, a steady and sober one. It completely skirts the most troubling parts of Mayor Nutter's campaign rhetoric. Sure, like a bunch of us have observed, it's all in the implementation. But if they can implement this basic return to high visibility, community-based policing, the city will be much better off.

I like when Chief Ramsey says that the changes he is making are sustainable, that it's not Safe Streets and Safer Streets and the Return of Safe Streets--short-term infusions of money that get eaten up in overtime and then are gone.

But I really hope that 'high visibility' 'community-based' policing is not code for bringing misguided 'broken windows'-style policing to Philadelphia.

That would add more victims--and deep costs--to the battle against crime and neighborhood decay.

The Inquirer this morning has an article that claims the crime plan is about just that, those broken windows: "Small arrests aim for major impact."

The new commissioner aims to drive violent crime down 20 percent this year by focusing on fundamentals - shifting more officers from special units to basic patrol. A key tactic of the plan is to focus on quality-of-life issues - such as public intoxication, loitering and gambling - that sometimes escalate into violent crimes or drive law-abiding residents to move elsewhere.

This is a startling leap: is it really 'gambling' that is driving people out of their deeply-scarred neighborhoods? Is there a causal link between cracking down on public intoxication and stopping shootings, rapes, and violent assaults?

The real question the article raises is, will our violent crime problem be fixed one $10 marijuana bust at a time?

As [Officer] Schoch patrolled the neighborhood, he looked for unusual behavior or groups on corners.

"Any time there's a large group of people, you have the potential for victims," he said. He was also on the lookout for pizza deliverers, who have been targets of recent robberies.

About an hour after he hit the road, driving east on Godfrey Avenue near Mascher Street while listening to the police radio and carrying on a conversation, Schoch jerked his head to the left. In seconds, he wheeled his car into a U-turn to intercept the drug transaction. The time was about 5:40.

"Come here," Schoch ordered the first man, who made a quick move away from the officer and tossed a wadded tissue under a parked car. Schoch forced him against his car. He told him to relax and extend his arms behind him for the handcuffs. The suspect, Ivory Jackson, 48, was still clutching a few dollars in his fist.

"I don't want to go through this again," said a bewildered Jackson, who wore a knit cap and an oversize coat.

After Schoch put the suspect into the back of the squad car, he explained what he had witnessed.

"Everything happens with your hands - a narcotics deal, a weapon. I couldn't even tell you what his face looks like. You watch the hands."

It's a small deal, a 1-gram bag of marijuana worth $10. A "dime bag" in the vernacular.

One of the two guys turns out to have a fraud warrant out on him, and they both get taken in and booked. The article is blase about whether or not this is productive or a waste of resources:

Some officers say the effort invested in making a case like this - Schoch and Leva spent two hours processing paperwork and evidence - removes officers from the street to hunt for worse offenders.

But Schoch said such arrests sent a strong message of intolerance for all crime. And it's impossible to say, until the arrest is made, when a minor stop might yield a bigger fish - somebody with a warrant for a violent crime, or somebody carrying an illegal weapon.

Sometimes these small arrests lead to information about bigger crimes, Schoch added.

"Some cops tell me I'm wasting my time with these arrests," he said. "I say I wouldn't want that stuff going on in my neighborhood."

Someone, explain to me what we get from an arrest like this?

The jury is somewhat out on the exact mechanics of the alleged deterrent effects of this "order-maintenance" or "broken windows" policing. I am happy to fight it out in the comments. But the costs of this policing are clear. A Temple study found that 88% percent of inmates in the city prison system are there for nonviolent, low-level offenses. We are under court order to get people out of the prisons who don't need to be there. The collateral costs of incarceration have been catalogued again and again: difficulty finding jobs, loss of resources in families and communities. Our new mayor and concilpeople like Wilson Goode have recognized the need to target reentry and probation to help get people out of the system, into jobs, and away from crime.

We don't need a crime plan that will throw a bunch more people into jail who don't really need to be there. Let's hope the article just shows irresponsible journalism, not policing.

New op-ed: Ending Poverty in Philadelphia

I don't think anything in my latest op-ed will be news to anyone who regularly reads Young Philly Politics. First, poverty is Philadelphia's biggest issue. Second, Bread and Roses Community Fund supports dozens of worthy organizations that are working to find a solution to this difficult problem.

Give to them now! Click here to give a gift to the whole city.

Funding grassroots start-ups
Philadelphia Daily News, 12/18/07

During the holiday season, our contributors are highlighting the miraculous work done by some local nonprofits and charities.

A FRIEND recently visited Philadelphia.

He was driving from western Pennsylvania, and there was a huge accident on the turnpike. He took a back way into the city, and wound up driving right through some of the worst pockets of poverty in Philadelphia.

It was a side of the city he'd never seen, though he'd visited half a dozen times. He was taken aback at the abandoned houses, streets in disrepair and vacant storefronts. He'd only been in Center City and adjacent areas, so the poverty was invisible.

Every year at this time, Philadelphians are asked to give to organizations that provide a warm coat or hot meal to a family in need. These are certainly worthy, but I want to live in a city where homeless shelters are obsolete. If you make a donation to Bread and Roses Community Fund, you'll be supporting work to end poverty in Philadelphia.

Inclusionary Housing bill: making shared prosperity a priority in city government

City Council voted 12 – 5 today to approve Inclusionary Housing in Philadelphia.

Councilman Darrell Clarke has been championing the idea that developers need to give back to the city’s working people—-who have been struggling to match their wages with the rapidly rising cost of homes and increased rents on apartments. This is a really important notion and one that Philadelphia’s economic development planning, such as it is, has shied away from in favor of tax cuts and tax incentives.

Legislating the idea of shared prosperity is something new and wonderful for Philadelphia city government. And treating developers and business like partners in building a sustainable city--who must be held accountable as well as feted--is also an important change.

Problem is, that when Clarke first wrote legislation to deal with this issue, he targeted a group of wage-earners who most would argue don’t need help as badly as others.

In a city where there is a need for 60,000 new units of affordable housing, any money or physical units set aside by developers need to be handed out to the people with the most need.

To his credit, bowing to pressure from the Philadelphia Housing Justice coalition, the bill that was voted on today focuses more exclusively on the lower end of Philadelphia’s wage earners (you may remember that Clarke’s original bill would have allowed developers to set aside units to people who earned as much as 150% of area median income which I think is like $100 k for a family of four).

The amended bill requires half of the units to serve families, on average, at 40% of area median income (which is more like $30 k for a family of four), although the upper income level is set at 80% of area median income (as Jennifer already suggested, read WCRP ED Nora Lictash’s op-ed in yesterday’s Inky if you want more details here).

Here’s the catch.

Today’s legislation won’t take effect until “developer incentives”, or cost offsets, are decided. So that requires another bill in the new Council next Spring.

What are "developer incentives?"

Well, for instance, when the bill is passed, a developer could build 12 stories worth of condos, and be required to set aside a certain number of units. Council could decide that the developer has to put the set-aside units on the market at a price that a family of four who earns $32,000 k can afford and just take that loss in return for the privilege of being allowed to build here.

To offset this “loss,” Council could offer developers a variety of things.

Like density bonuses, where the developer is permitted to build more units than the zoning code would normally allow. Or, maybe allow developed to build higher in an apartment building than normal, or allow smaller lot sizes or smaller set-backs.

In short, developer incentives are things that directly increase profit for developers to offset any "loss" they see from contributing to our affordable housing crisis, but doesn’t directly cost the city anything.

From a coalition press release:

“We’ve worked with some of the top experts from the field and talked with key market-rate developers in Philadelphia to understand appropriate developer incentives,” said Nora Lichtash, Executive Director of the Women’s Community Revitalization Project. “We stand ready to work with City Council next year to develop fair and reasonable incentives that will make Philadelphia’s Inclusionary Housing program a model for future policies.”

However, some developers will be lobbying in the spring to have the city subsidize some of their loss on per-unit sales to low income families--with cash money.

There is a rumor that some developers have already asked for 100% subsidization--this of course would defeat the whole purpose of the bill—shared prosperity—and it’s something to keep an eye on. Between city contracts, possible BPT cuts, and a whole new set of priorities from a new Mayor and Council, I doubt we afford to subsidize developer contributions to affordable housing. Especially when the whole point of a bill was to find creative ways to fund an urgent problem.

There is a also a big picture to keep in mind here: the Affordable Housing Trust fund is already up and running, and developers are submitting RFPs to it to get money to build new units of affordable housing, for both sale or rent. Coalition folks tell me that the new stream of money from the Inclusionary Housing bill will double the reach and impact of the trust fund.

What does that mean in real numbers? In total, we're talking about construction of about 14,000 new units of affordable housing and/or repair to existing stock over 10 years.

And the need is at least 60,000 units.

So, I am glad this bill passed, and I hope the discussion of developer incentives is smooth, easy, and fast, as Council and the Mayor have a lot more work cut out for them to create more affordable housing than just this one bill.

In the meantime, let’s savor the victory today not just for affordable housing advocates, but for everyone who believes that our city government can and should so what it can to bring shared prosperity to all Philadelphians.

For the record: Supporting the bill were Clarke, DiCicco, Blackwell, Campbell, Savage, Miller, Tasco, Goode, Reynolds Brown, Kenney, Greenlee and Ramos. Call to thank them!

No votes were Verna, Krajewski, O’Neill, Rizzo and Kelly. Call to express your disappointment with them. Contact info is here.

Too bad some of the "No" votes aren't the people leaving Council next month. And in the meantime, I wonder where those folks are gonna be, and the new Mayor, on passing a reasonable package of incentives for developers.

Its Time to Index the Minimum Wage to Inflation

On Saturday, Pennsylvania's elected officials will receive their annual cost of living adjustment (COLA), and many lawmakers will be receiving substantial raises to keep their salaries in line with inflation. The base salary of a legislator in the General Assembly will increase approximately $2,550 to $76,163 and Governor Rendell will receive pay bump of nearly $6,000 and will collect $170,150 in 2008.

This annual cost of living increase was signed into law in 1995 and kicks in every year. The U.S. Congress passed a similar law in 1989 that automatically raises their salaries each year to account for inflation and rise in the cost of living, unless they vote otherwise. Unsurprisingly, Congress has only twice neglected to give itself a pay raise since then.

Charity is not a Substitute for Real Public Policy

A while back, I randomly was watching ABC News, and came across an amazing hour-long story about the lives of a group of poor kids in Camden. It really was a wonderful job of showing just how desperate the lives of so many Americans are. And, I wasn’t alone in being affected by the story, because the show took on a life of its own. Governor’s Corzine’s staffers apparently made him watch a tape of it, charity poured in, etc.

Now, one of the families featured on the show- the Marrero’s- is back in the news again. In fact, they had a brand new house for them built over the course of a week (in Pennsauken, not Camden) by the show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. First, let me state that it is wonderful that the family got a new home. Absolutely wonderful. But, there is something about all of this follow-up to the ABC piece that is so problematic, and echoes all-too familiar storylines about the deserving poor.

The deserving poor, for those who don’t know it, is an old term (used at least as far back as the Elizabethan-era in England) to talk about poor people who were a-ok, because they were sick or injured, etc. These ‘noble’ poor people didn’t deserve their lot in life, so, society was supposed to take care of them with charity. In other words, the nice guy father of five in Camden, who has a huge heart, but suffered two major heart attacks is deserving, so he gets a new house. Then, of course, there are the undeserving poor. You know, those 12-kid-having, welfare-defrauding-queens who are stealing money from the public.

Even without meaning it, Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall gives a great example of the 'deserving poor' narrative that developed:

The family's struggles have been well-documented. A 20/20 documentary about the children of Camden first introduced us to Billy Joe, the oldest son, and the rest of the Marreros in January.

It was hard not to root for Victor: A pair of heart attacks in seven years had left him unable to resume work as an office manager and he was out of health insurance. He couldn't depend on his wife. She left with the couple's three daughters after his first heart attack in '94.

That left Victor, 54, permanently disabled, alone with five stairsteps - Jonas, 15; Steven, 16; Ethan, 17; Joshua, 18; to Billy Joe, 19 - to raise and no income to raise them.

Just like that, a situation that was already real bad became untenable.

"We were cold and hungry, but we never complained," Billy Joe tells me, relaying the story while crowded with his brothers on a leather loveseat in a family room decorated with Victor-mandated Eagles memorabilia.

This is clearly a loving family, who got the shaft in life, and are now getting some much deserved luck. But, what about everyone else in the City they moved from? The point is that the deserving poor, even when not explicitly referred to, is an extraordinarily dangerous road to go down. Yes, it was amazing that within days of original airing of the show, charity poured in for these families. Americans are, at their core, good hearted people. But, what would have been much more amazing was a realization that the Marrero family story could have been replicated over and over and over, in Camden, Philadelphia, and places all over the Country.

The answer to such massive, deeply entrenched generational poverty is not charity. The answer is public policy. If ABC and the Inquirer really want to serve their cities, the answer will not be more stories that focus on ‘fixing’ the situation of one or two families. They will continue instead to document just how pervasive poverty is, and what we can do as a city, region, state and nation to end it.

Thursday - Show the Next Mayor You Care About Homelessness and Poverty

Dear Friends:

I recently reported that this summer saw the highest homeless population in ten years.

I think you'll agree that this is an unacceptable situation.

This Thursday at 1pm at City Hall, please come out to a rally organized by the Vote for Homes! coalition to show the next mayor that they need to address issues of homelessness and poverty.

Details below:

Show the Next Mayor You Care About Homelessness and Poverty

Mayoral Candidates to Address Homeless and Low-Income Voters

Nutter and Taubenberger will attend Vote for Homes! rally and receive thousands of post cards urging action on homelessness and poverty

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