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Philadelphia’s Common Sense Approach to Helping the Working Poor

Can changing how you address an envelope improve communication with your constituents? Philadelphia aimed to find out.

Those who might be curious about the effects of the City Accelerator would do well to watch and listen for 3 minutes and 42 seconds as Maia Jachimowicz summarizes the Philadelphia experience. Philadelphia is one of the oldest cities in the nation and has one of the highest poverty rates. In an earlier interview for City Accelerator, Philadelphia's former Mayor Michael Nutter, who left office in January 2016 due to term limits, described the target population as the "working poor,” or those individuals who are employed and earning income but do not earn enough to rise above the poverty line.

The issue isn’t that the city doesn't have programs to address the problem. It's just that the programs and the people don't work well together. There are substantial gaps and overlaps. In far too many cases, the programs have not been utilized by the very individuals they are designed to help. Mayor Nutter characterized it as an effect of "the machinations and hassles and duplications” of the bureaucracy.

Accordingly, Philadelphia's City Accelerator project aims to address the inefficiencies of the community's existing anti-poverty measures while also increasing the participation rate among the working poor and others that qualify.

In an effort to get the word out, city staff used carefully crafted and targeted letters, postcards and phone calls. They learned that people are more likely to open a large brown envelope rather than a small "official looking" or legal-sized envelope. It’s also more effective if the envelopes are hand addressed and have an actual stamp instead of a machine imprint.

Employing the science of behavioral economics, the city sought a more common-sense way of handling paperwork. Forms sent to those that might qualify for benefits were preprinted with all the information the city already had, including name, address, etc. In addition, questions about interest and qualifying details were written so the recipient would be asked to "opt out" rather than "opt in.”

By redesigning the program and addressing those troublesome gaps and overlaps that were contributing to confusion and lack of participation, the city made it much easier for qualified citizens to take advantage of existing programs.

According to Jachimowicz, to make greater use of existing efforts, the city learned that it's a matter of engaging a greater measure of trust and employing a more human element in the transaction.

It may seem simple, but it’s really not. It's difficult to tame the bureaucratic language that many of us use every day. And sadly, sometimes it might be hard to treat people as human beings instead of faceless and nameless numbers in a chart – especially when dealing with a problem that seems overwhelming. But if we want to be effective and efficient in how we use public resources, it's important we become more sensitive and do it right.

Mayor Nutter’s successor, Mayor Jim Kenney, is tasked with carrying on the effort of addressing Philadelphia's poverty and bettering the lives and fortunes of its poorer citizens. Whether the new mayor will build on the foundation that has been provided or pursue a different path remains to be seen. But it's not optional – it comes with the job.

Jachimowicz, who served as Philadelphia's policy director and a principal staff member during the City Accelerator effort for Mayor Nutter, has moved on to become vice president of evidence-based policy at Results for America – a nonprofit that seeks to make greater use of public resources, recognizing public funds must increasingly be invested in what works.

And isn't that what the City Accelerator is all about? If you haven't already watched the video, do so now. For those who might be interested in the welfare of cities, it's certainly worth four minutes of your time.  

Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.
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