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Can The Promise lift 100,000 Philadelphians out of poverty by 2025?

March 31, 2022 Category: FeatureFeaturedLongMethod

Michael Banks first learned he was poor because his sneakers were different. 

Growing up in North Philadelphia, Banks experienced “the five senses of poverty.” The smells were different at each of the stops on SEPTA”s #3 bus. The sounds were different outside his middle school in Kensington than back home west of Broad. But he most remembers that even in a neighborhood with high rates of poverty, other kids wore better sneakers than he did.

“I learned this doesn’t have to be a way of life,” Banks said. “I made it a personal mission to do something about it.”

In February, Banks was named the Executive Director of The Promise, a public-private partnership that has pledged to lift 100,000 Philadelphians out of poverty by 2025. He’s now leading the biggest anti-poverty campaign in the poorest big city in the country. Roughly 1 in 4 Philadelphians live in poverty. That’s very personal for Banks.

Last week, he spoke to Generocity in his first public interview after taking the role. 

Though Philadelphia has been a poor big city for decades, the percentage of Philadelphians living in poverty has been declining since 2011, according to the Economy League. The year before the pandemic hit its lowest percentage since 2005.

The problem, then, hasn’t been our direction but our speed. Philadelphia has a patchwork of social services agencies and community based organizations that address various facets of poverty. Yet, as one insider told me last year, Philadelphia is mostly just “servicing poverty.” 

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The Promise is billed as something different. It was born of $10 million in city funding directed toward the United Way of Greater Philadelphia in February 2021. That partnership built on an announcement a year earlier of the Philadelphia Poverty Action Plan, which was introduced by City Council President Darell Clarke as his signature initiative. That itself was an enhancement of Clarke’s initial goal to bring the city’s poverty rate down to 20%, which he timed with his newest term as council president in December 2019. Clarke frequently calls this a “moonshot,” summoning the space race of the 1960s. 

Banks is a United Way employee but The Promise has its own separate sleek branding — complete with influencers. United Way CEO Bill Golderer told me early on that the decision to limit his nonprofit’s visibility was a genuine attempt at building something that all the city’s anti-poverty agencies and efforts could get behind — despite the notoriously sharp elbows of poverty politics in Philadelphia. They’ll need the help if they intend to make what could be the biggest change to poverty in the city’s history.

“[Our goal] should be something that makes us uncomfortable,” Banks said. “There’s a danger in setting the bar too low, and that has plagued our city.”

Though still new in his role, Banks doesn’t offer any especially inventive solutions to reach such an ambitious goal. “There’s a lot of learning we’re doing right now,” he told me more than once.

What tools he does recite — record clearance, tax prep, benefits advocacy — are familiar ones to anyone active in anti-poverty work. Advocates say that’s because The Promise does not intend to create its own solutions. It is focusing existing resources and bringing together established organizations to coordinate a response.

This is all coming at a dizzying time in poverty work.

Poverty in the pandemic proved a kind of curate’s egg. Amid the carnage, the U.S. federal government made a world-leading fiscal stimulus investment. Enhanced child tax credits, stimulus checks and other benefits had a remarkable result. Poverty declined in 2020

The full weight of the federal government may have brought an estimated 75,000 Philadelphians out of poverty for a time — nearly the entirety of this seismic five year goal accomplished in the span of a few weeks. But it wasn’t to last. All those protective programs have since lapsed. It was all an anti-poverty fever dream.

That teaches at least two lessons. First, the tools of a poor big city are nothing in comparison to a big rich country. Two, short term infusions of cash don’t make lasting change. 

That makes a complex story for The Promise. Local anti-poverty measures can seem like the proverbial knife at the gunfight of generational poverty. Advocates say though that the latter lesson is the important one. National politics are far too capricious to be considered in addressing poverty locally. 

“We have [this level of] poverty because of a lack of investment for years,” said Banks, who knows this personally. “It will take as long to undo…Not everyone has that time, so we need to do what we can.”

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Generocity is one of 22 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice.


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