Temple Sociologist Looks at the Causes — and Potential Cures — for Deep Poverty in City of Brotherly Love

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Temple University sociology professor Judith Levine has some ideas for how Philadelphia can help solve its poverty problem. 

Raising the minimum wage, improving the education system, rebuilding trust between low-income people and the rest of society and funding universal Pre-K: These are some of the ways Temple University sociology professor Judith Levine thinks Philadelphia can help solve its poverty problem. 
 
 Levine, author of Ain’t No Trust: How Bosses, Boyfriends, and Bureaucrats Fail Low-Income Mothers and Why It Matters, discussed why poverty is high throughout the country and Philadelphia when she spoke to 35 congregants on Dec. 7, at Beth Am Israel Congregation in Penn Valley’s monthly lecture series. 
 
“There is no single solution and attacking the problem on multiple fronts is necessary,” Levine told the Jewish Exponent. “Government policies have really chipped away at the safety net over time so one important approach would be to create more generous government benefits that can catch people when they hit hard times and that are sufficiently large enough to actually lift people out of poverty.”
 
According to the Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity, 28 percent of Philadelphians live below the federal poverty level and 46 million Americans live in poverty. Despite those alarming numbers, the poverty line, which was created more than 50 years ago, has not been adjusted since. 
 
“If people don’t trust the government, the incentives aren’t going to work,” Levine told the audience. “Trust is built when they feel they can make people feel accountable. We should be trying to support low-income families as they move into the labor market rather than creating inflexible demands that force them to quickly find child care arrangements and jobs that won’t work in the long run.”  
 
In 1963, economist and statistician Mollie Orshanksy created the Orshansky Poverty Thresholds, a measure of the income that a household must not exceed to be counted as poor.
 
Compiled from findings in the USDA’s 1955 Household Food Consumption Survey (the latest such survey available during the early 1960s), Orshansky knew families of three or more persons had spent approximately one-third of their after-tax money income on food. 
 
However, Levine explained that the poverty line, which is based on Orshansky’s work, is problematic because it has not been adjusted since its creation and does not factor in such advancements as cellphones and automobiles. 
 
“Because we have all these costs that didn’t exist before, we only spend a sixth of our money on food instead of a third,” Levine said. 
 
Philadelphia also has the highest deep poverty rate, which is measured as income of 50 percent or less of the poverty rate, of the 10 largest metropolitan areas in the country. A family of four living in deep poverty takes in $12,000 or less annually, half the poverty rate of $24,000 for a family that size.
 
The U.S. deep-poverty rate is 6.8 percent, while Philadelphia’s deep-poverty rate is 12.3 percent, or around 186,000 people — 60,000 of who are children, an examination of the newly released shows.
 
Levine began researching poverty in Philadelphia in 2008 when she joined Temple University. She told the Jewish Exponent the socioeconomic differences between the suburbs and Philadelphia sparked her interest in the subject. Geographically, these communities are close, but are worlds apart when it comes to household income. 
 
While Philadelphia launched the Shared Prosperity Plan in January 2013, which involves creating jobs and training, access to benefits, early learning and housing and economic security, Levine said it was not sufficient to resolve the problem. 
 
“What really needs to change is federal policy,” Levine said. 
 
Another glaring problem that has contributed to poverty in Philadelphia is poor education, she added. According to the Mayor’s Office of Community and Empowerment and Opportunity, “jobs in education and the health services have increased 18 percent in the last 10 years. Twelve of Philadelphia’s 15 largest employers in 2012 were in the education and health sectors. The jobs in these sectors require skills and higher education or post-secondary training lacking by many Philadelphians who want to be in the workforce.”
 
“It is estimated that by 2030, 600,000 Philadelphians [nearly 39 percent of the current total population] will not have the skills to secure the types of jobs that will be available in Philadelphia as we live in an increasingly global economy,” said Levine. 
 
In addition, since kindergarten is not mandatory in the state, many communities lack sufficient high-quality early childhood education options.
 
“The Philadelphia school system is rife with problems,” said Levine. “We don’t have a labor force that matches the job offers in our labor market.”
 
Race plays a role in poverty as well. African Americans and Asian Americans in Philadelphia have roughly similar poverty rates. However, because African Americans comprise 44 percent of the city’s population, there are considerably more African Americans in poverty than Asian Americans.
 
“African American poverty is the major headline of Philadelphia poverty,” said Levine. 
 
While most people associate poverty with color, white people suffer from it more than anyone else in the country. 
 
Fourteen year-old Molly Cutler of Wynnewood, 14, who lived in Philadelphia as a child, can’t understand why elected officials don’t get more involved.
 
“It’s upsetting to see that people are so resistant to helping when they’re real people and it’s treated as a political issue instead of genuinely caring about others,” said Cutler.
 
Carl Witonsky of Bryn Mawr was impressed with Levine’s presentation, but said he was disturbed that the country still uses a poverty line created in 1963. “I was flabbergasted that the measurement system was as primitive as it is.” 
 
Contact: jcohen@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0747
 

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