Why does Philadelphia, a major center of university education in the U.S., have so much poverty?
This city has the second-largest student concentration on the East Coast, with over 420,000 college and university students in the metropolitan area. Temple University is one of more than 80 colleges, universities, trade and specialty schools that together have a total revenue of $6.73 billion and employ over 31,987 staff, said Axis Philly in October.
Yet Philadelphia, in which people of color make up 59 percent of the population, has the highest rate of extreme poverty of the nation’s 10 largest cities, at 12.9 percent, says USA.com. Extreme poverty is defined for a family of three as living on less than $9,500, stated Chicago Now last March.
The two highest-poverty zip codes in the city border Temple University’s 130-year-old campus. However, those neighborhoods, with a near 90 percent African-American and Latino/a population, have not benefited from that institution, which offers only low-wage jobs.
In fact, poverty is widespread in most of Philadelphia. Some 51 percent of the city’s households bring home incomes below $35,000. Of the city’s 46 residential zip codes, 24 have poverty rates of more than 20 percent. Three out of every 10 city residents are food-stamp-eligible, reported the PEW charitable trust in January.
Overall, this city has the most uneducated residents of the 25 largest cities. Some 57 percent of adults age 35 and older, and 39 percent of those age 25 to 34, have a high-school diploma or less, reported philly.com in January. Also, 23 percent of adults are college graduates, substantially below the national average.
Just 13 percent of the 2013 entering freshman classes at 11 Philadelphia colleges were from the city. Some 87 percent are from other parts of Pennsylvania, out of state or overseas. These institutions are largely exempt from paying property taxes — one of the main ways Philadelphia raises money for its kindergarten-to-12th-grade school system, reports Axis Philly.
Despite being administered by the state since 2002, public elementary and secondary schools continue to be underfunded. Since 2003, the school district has wasted millions of dollars by increasing enrollment at for-profit charter schools by 219 percent, while decreasing public school enrollment by 26 percent, says PEW.
Corporations get tax breaks
The high rates of poverty and low educational levels persist even though the Philadelphia regional economy, with an estimated annual output of $352.7 billion, is the seventh largest in the country, notes PEW. According to the World Bank, if this city were a country, it would be the 32nd largest economy in the world.
The city is home to the Philadelphia Stock Exchange and a number of Fortune 500 companies. Comcast received $47.25 million in tax breaks and incentives to build its headquarters here, and it’s set to receive $40 million in city and state grants, a $4.5 million tax break and a 10-year tax abatement for a new 59-floor tower, reports Alter Net on Feb. 13. Ironically, one-third of residents do not have Internet access.
Other corporations headquartered here are insurance companies Colonial Penn, CIGNA and Lincoln Financial Group; energy company Sunoco; food services company Aramark and Crown Holdings Inc.; chemical makers Rohm, Haas Company and FMC Corporation; pharmaceutical giants Wyeth and GlaxoSmithKline; airplane builder Boeing’s Rotorcraft Systems; and automotive parts retailer Pep Boys.
More than 70 percent of multistate corporations in Pennsylvania do not pay any income tax. (institutepa.org, 2012)
School to low-wage pipeline
Philadelphia’s poorly funded education system has contributed to a grossly unequal state imprisonment rate. The Sentencing Project reports that 305 whites are in prison per 100,000 residents; yet for Latinos/as the number is 1,714 and for Black residents it’s 2,792.
Prisons exist under capitalism in part to take potentially rebellious oppressed peoples off the streets. Once out of prison, the stigma of being ex-prisoners means most of the 40,000 adults on probation or parole here are searching for jobs. Or they join the massive ranks of low-wage workers.
Youth who are 16 to 19 years old continue to suffer the worst unemployment rate. White youth unemployment is 18.6 percent, while 35.8 percent of African-American youth look for work, reported the Bureau of Labor Statistics in December.
Statewide, the number of workers being paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 or less has almost tripled since 2007, from 2 percent to 5.7 percent of all wage earners. Women make up 66 percent of those workers, said the BLS in 2012. The Restaurant Opportunities Center United asserts 58 percent of workers with incomes below the poverty line are Black, Latino/a and other oppressed people.
‘Reserve army of labor’
Karl Marx wrote that capitalism needs to maintain a “reserve army of unemployed workers” so businesses can maintain a cheap supply of labor. This includes the underemployed, who involuntarily work at part-time or temporary jobs.
The failure of the ruling class to provide education or living-wage jobs for this city’s multinational working class should be seen in this context. The universities could be a useful tool to bring communities out of poverty. Instead, the continued degradation of elementary schools by the corporate-controlled School District and Pennsylvania’s governing bodies ensures a ready source of low-wage workers for businesses.
Education is a right in a humane society. But it is a commodity under capitalism. The capitalists need a certain number of educated workers whom they can exploit to make profits. Since business owners no longer need so many highly educated workers, they don’t want to pay for better schools.
The movement for the right to an education is intrinsically linked to the fight for jobs and higher wages. The barrier is the same: powerful corporate owners who benefit from keeping workers uneducated, impoverished and forced to work for low wages.
Students and low-wage workers have much to gain by uniting their struggles. Ultimately, only an economy based on human need, not profits, can provide education and jobs for everyone.
Piette is a member of the Phair Hiring Coalition, working to get Temple University and other North Philadelphia institutions to hire people of color and women on construction projects.