In Poverty Fight, Philadelphia Mayor Takes a New Tactic

Jim Kenney is focused on rebuilding public spaces that everyone uses as a way to address the highest poverty rate of any big U.S. city.
December 2018
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney (AP)
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Publisher
Former mayor of Kansas City, Mo.

At a Knight Foundation smart cities forum in Philadelphia in September, the opening session was billed as a conversation about technology between the foundation’s president and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. What transpired had little to do with technology.

A significant part of what won the crowd over was the honest and authentic way Kenney talked about immigration, about how wrong he thought President Trump was on the issue and why he was willing to engage in a protracted fight with the federal government over Philadelphia’s sanctuary city status. “Diversity,” he said “is our strength.” Kenney reminded the crowd that some of the previous waves of immigrants, among them the Irish, Italians and European Jews, were not initially welcomed, any more than people coming here from Latin America today or African-Americans who began migrating to Northern cities a century ago.

Dealing with urban poverty, linked as it is to those latter-day migrations, is key for every big-city mayor, but the challenges are particularly acute for Philadelphia. The country’s fifth-largest city, it has the highest poverty rate among big cities. More than a quarter of its residents have incomes below the federal poverty level, and more than half of those struggle to get by on less than 50 percent of that.

A lot of experts will tell you that lifting folks out of poverty is a job for the federal government and that there’s little a city can do to move the needle. Kenney is giving that assertion a serious test. The mayor is confronting poverty in a way that doesn’t single out the poor as a separate class or marginalize them as just one more interest group clamoring for special favors. Instead, to broaden the base of support from taxpayers, Kenney maintains a focus on the idea of public, as in public schools, public spaces and public transit. This acknowledges the reality of what poor people need.

The three main pillars of Kenney’s approach are the city’s soda tax, its schools and a program focused on rebuilding public spaces. The soda tax, 1.5 cents per ounce, raises about $90 million a year, which is used to fund pre-K education as well as parks, libraries and other public spaces. Kenney was able to wrest control of the schools away from the state, which had run them for years. And the city recently unveiled a new transit plan. While the plan features upgrades across all modes of public transportation, the biggest push is to improve the affordability and connectivity of the bus system. Almost half of Philadelphians in poverty ride the bus.

None of these things can happen without getting the politics right. Kenney, who grew up enmeshed in South Philly politics and went on to serve for 23 years on the city council, clearly knows how the machinery works. One of the people I talked to about him mentioned that the mayor never gets too far out in front of the 17-member council -- that he won’t do much without being “within hailing distance of nine votes.”

On the other hand, Kenney has surrounded himself with very competent young activists and technocrats impatient to make big changes. The result is that while he isn’t America’s flashiest progressive mayor, he might be one of the most effective at dealing with things that matter to progressives. And that’s just what Philadelphia needs at this moment.