Philadelphia is at a turning point in its history and the decisions City Council and the mayor make in the coming budget will determine whether our city becomes a place where every community, every neighborhood, every person has the opportunity to live full, productive and safe lives.
That may seem apocalyptic — after all, the city has rebounded from its lows of three decades ago, and stories about its renaissance and vibrant cultural and dining scenes have filled the pages of newspapers and magazines. But as anyone who lives or works in the city can tell you, there are two Philadelphias — a glittering one with high rises and world-class restaurants and museums and another where violence is a daily fact of life, work is often hard to come by, and houses are either unsafe or increasingly unaffordable.
Too often, we pretend that’s not our city’s reality, but it is: even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Philadelphia was the poorest big city in the country, and that poverty has limited what we can achieve individually and collectively. The deep, wide and ongoing job losses from COVID have only made the situation more difficult for people trying to make ends meet.
There is a real opportunity to do more than just rebuild what COVID has taken, but to rethink and recharge our economy to be more inclusive and create opportunity for entrepreneurs and workers.
To do this, however, decision makers and the public must not be distracted by loud voices that label their policy preferences as being the only way to increase “equity” or “opportunity,” but in reality will do little to create either. The only way to create true equity is by creating economic opportunity for everyone and in every community.
That means prioritizing what will help create jobs for today’s workers and what is needed to prepare tomorrow’s workers to enter the workforce.
It’s why the recently approved federal stimulus plan, the American Recovery Plan (ARP), is so important. As part of the new legislation, Philadelphia is slated to receive $1.4 billion over the next two years to address the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The funding does not come with laden with overly burdensome restrictions on its uses, but rather the broad mandate to speed up the United States’ recovery from the economic and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing recession.
There are certainly strong arguments in favor of using these funds to address the immediate needs of those who need it the most by restoring the budget cuts made in June 2020 and funding new initiatives that address racial and income disparities and gun violence. The city should do those things.
But if, in two years’ time, when the federal stimulus funding is exhausted, Philadelphia is only back to where it was pre-COVID and the city’s unemployment and poverty remains among the highest in the nation, will we have missed an opportunity to reset our city’s future.
That’s why it’s so important City Council and the mayor agree to use some portion of the ARP funds to make new quality of life and economic development investments that prompt more expansive, equitable and inclusive growth.
This is not an “either-or” moment, but an “as well as” moment.
Philadelphia can invest in reducing the root causes of inequity as well as to promote inclusive job and business growth going forward. Philadelphia can retrain people for the jobs of today, as well as ensure they have jobs to go to thereafter. Philadelphia can bolster local and Black and brown businesses, including those on our commercial corridors, as well as ensure they have a growing base of businesses and consumers with whom to do business.
There are immediate needs that we should help with. But helping them today without putting them in a position to help themselves going forward isn’t a long-term solution. People need jobs so they can build a more secure future for themselves and their loved ones.
Philadelphia has an opportunity to use federal stimulus funds to help rebuild our region’s economy by growing Black- and brown-owned businesses and regenerating Neighborhood Commercial Corridors, working to retain companies currently in the city and attracting new ones, and reducing the taxes paid by the small and medium sized businesses which employ the majority of Philadelphians in neighborhood jobs.
This is an opportunity that will only come around once. Philadelphia should take it.