Outgoing Philadelphia mayor: Deep poverty holding city back

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Posted: Dec 29, 2015 11:16 PM
Outgoing Philadelphia mayor: Deep poverty holding city back

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Mayor Michael Nutter says he believes he is leaving at the top of his game. But even with the notable successes, he said Philadelphia's deep-seated poverty is stopping the city from reaching its potential.

Poverty's "vise-like grip," he said, can put the poor "in a bad mood every day."

"I love what I do, and I think we've gotten pretty good at it," Nutter told The Associated Press as he reflected recently on his eight years in office. "I could give you 20 stats on how wonderful the city is, but no matter what we do, no matter how great we continue to be or strive to come, when one out of four folks in the city are living below the federal poverty line ... it ultimately holds back the city's potential."

Nutter, who is 58, took office in 2008 in the midst of the Great Recession, and much of his early work was triage. But this year, he welcomed Pope Francis and international attention to a city of 1.5 million showing signs of progress and momentum.

High school graduation rates are up. Violent crime is down. Millennials are flocking to the thriving city center. Building is booming.

But poverty lingers: stubborn, intractable and looming over Nutter's accomplishments like a shadow. It is the thing that nags him as he surveys his legacy before leaving office next week.

"It is persistent. It is deep," Nutter said. "That'll put you in a bad mood every day."

For a generation, the poverty rate in Philadelphia has been more than 20 percent — making it the poorest big city in the country. Mayors preceding Nutter have attempted to tackle the crisis; his successor, former city Councilman Jim Kenney, has already said he will make fighting poverty a priority.

Five years into his term, Nutter began a coordinated effort to tackle poverty that focused on job creation and training, more access to affordable housing, connecting people with social services and expanding early childhood education. Earlier this month, the city announced it had effectively ended veteran homelessness by providing housing for nearly 1,400 vets through a network of resources.

"Mayor Nutter cares about poverty," said City Council President Darrell Clarke, who shared a tense relationship with Nutter as mayor and whose district is one of the poorest. "But it's about caring versus implementing strategies. Was it his primary focus? Not early on, but eventually."

Philadelphia is also the largest city with a black mayor — the city's third — and blacks make up more than 40 percent of the population.

Whether discussing disparities in education, criminal justice or gun violence, Nutter said being an African-American mayor in the city, at this time, has made a difference.

"What I brought to this work and to this office every day is a very keen understanding and awareness of what it's like to grow up as a young black boy in this city," Nutter said. "Those experiences are on my mind daily. It has certainly helped us elevate issues of poverty, crime, and education at the national level. People hear that message a little differently when somebody like me is standing in front of a bank of microphones."

Nutter will continue to serve on the advisory council for My Brother's Keeper, an Obama administration initiative aimed at black males — a role he said could increase after he leaves office.

"While I will not be in elected office, that does not mean I cannot be engaged and involved in some other ways," he said. "My work here is not done. I'll have a different platform to stand on and have my voice out there ... to truly help folks to make better life decisions, especially young black men."

He will again work to try getting Hillary Clinton elected president, and has already been dispatched to other states on her behalf.

"As I've said with a smile, I don't want to go, but I have to go," Nutter said of leaving office. "It's been incredible, and I knew this day would come, but it came a whole lot quicker than I thought."