A Tale of Denver and Philadelphia's Anti-Poverty Plans

Ron Littlefield | July 15, 2014

To the casual observer, Philadelphia and Denver might appear to have little in common. Monikers such as “The Birthplace of America” and “The Cradle of Liberty” describe Philadelphia’s importance in America’s beginnings, while Denver’s rich history begins almost 200 years later as the country struck gold and began a massive westward expansion.

Juxtaposition geographic, demographic and population characteristics and you’ll still find few similarities. Denver lies on the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains and has an elevation of 5,280 feet, earning it the nickname of “The Mile-High City.” Philadelphia is a port city on the Eastern Seaboard with an elevation of 39 feet. With a population just over 1.5 million, Philadelphia is the largest of the six cities in the current cohort of the City Accelerator. Denver’s population is roughly half that. 
 
And then there’s poverty. At 26 percent, Philadelphia has the highest rate in the country, while Denver is at 12.6 percent – more in line with the national average, but obviously not ideal. To be poor in Denver is just as painful as it is to be poor in Philadelphia. 
 
Two cities, many differences. But despite these disparities, Philadelphia and Denver have similarities regarding how they are approaching their biggest challenges. They are also, notably, among a cohort of cities that are seeking to hone and implement their ideas collaboratively through the City Accelerator. 
 

Philadelphia

Mayor Nutter states the problem clearly: “We have the highest poverty rate of any large city in the nation. It was 28 percent and we’ve managed to reduce it to about 26 percent, but it is still way too high.”
 
Nutter describes those living in poverty in Philadelphia as “working poor” – while many have jobs, their income is insufficient to meet their basic needs. One of the challenges in Philadelphia is that opportunities do exist for struggling citizens – the city has a property tax freeze available to low-income property owners and a homestead exemption with no income eligibility limit – but participation is very low among those that would benefit most. 
 
Mayor Nutter says people must first realize they are eligible for aid and then must be helped to move past the psychological barriers that make them resist assistance. Finally, the process of receiving that aid must be simplified to accommodate individuals who cannot afford to spend time making multiple trips to a government office or filling out superfluous paperwork.
 
Says Nutter: "The machinations and hassles and duplications" of the existing bureaucratic process that frustrate efforts must be simplified and resolved. One approach the city will use to combat this problem is “behavioral economics” – defined simply as a common-sense way of handling paperwork. For example, by using data already on file for most citizens, the city will pre-print and personalize forms for eligible applicants. Individuals already determined to be eligible for aid will need to intentionally opt out of that aid rather than opt in, which, the city hopes, will reduce the chance for misunderstandings and increase participation.
 
In the future, Philadelphia wants to explore how mobile phones might help government officials better communicate with low-income citizens. 
 

Denver

Despite their aforementioned differences, Denver leaders describe their problems and proposed solutions in much the same way as Philadelphia.
 
David Edinger, chief performance officer for the city of Denver, says that it’s important to “ask questions in the right way” to best provide aid to low-income populations. Edinger notes that, as Philadelphia has also found, it is better to ask people to opt out of eligibility rather than expect them to opt in.
 
Edinger says Denver’s comprehensive program will focus resources on the most proven, most effective remedies and the city “will not be paying for efforts in a Band-Aid fashion.” An example of Denver’s commitment to proactively confront challenges is Mayor Hancock’s Peak Performance program, an approach that invests in and empowers city employees by giving them tools to identify inefficiencies, eliminate waste, embrace innovation, improve customer service and solve city problems. The accompanying Peak Academy helps train city staff in these techniques.
 
Denver’s plan to improve its criminal justice system as part of the City Accelerator showcases this thinking. Denver Sheriff Gary Wilson says that instead of building a new jail to house more inmates, the city plans to use non-jail programs – such as home detention for non-violent and less serious offenses – that can dispense justice or get individuals the help they need without requiring additional expensive jail space. 
 
Funds saved through Peak Performance and improving the criminal justice system can be put to use elsewhere. Edinger says that Mayor Hancock’s administration particularly wants to focus on helping the 3,000 children in Denver that are in school but are homeless or do not have a stable home environment.
 
In spite of their significant geographic and historic differences, Denver and Philadelphia are finding new ways to make better use of limited public resources to fight poverty.
 
You can help Philadelphia, Denver and the other cities participating in the City Accelerator by rating and reviewing their proposals.  The process is simple and fast.  The cities, and our partners at Living Cities, are studying reader feedback carefully.  You can do your part by following the links, watching a short video and giving them a quick review.
 
 
•         Denver
•         Philadelphia
•         Albuquerque
•         Louisville
•         Nashville
•         San Jose
 
 
Next week: A closer look at the city pitches from Nashville and San Jose.  

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