TOPICS > Politics

Closing the Gap: Mayor Michael Nutter on strengthening state, federal partnerships to fight poverty

February 14, 2014 at 6:17 PM EDT
In Philadelphia, more than a quarter of all residents live below the poverty level, the highest rate among U.S. cities its size or larger. In our series on the growing divide between the rich and poor, Judy Woodruff talks to Mayor Michael Nutter about the complex, intergenerational factors that fuel poverty and what his city’s designation as a “Promise Zone” will mean for combating inequality.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: We return tonight to the subject of poverty and inequality.

In recent days, we have spoken with members of both political parties weighing in on the problem for our series of conversations Closing the Gap.

For a closer look at how one particularly hard-hit city is coping, we turn to Philadelphia, where more than 28 percent of residents live below the poverty level. That’s the highest rate of any U.S. city with more than one million people. The median income in Philadelphia is just above $34,000. Now, that’s the second lowest of any U.S. city, just ahead of Detroit.

Well, joining us now from Philadelphia is that city’s mayor, Democratic Mayor Michael Nutter.

Mr. Mayor, we welcome you to the program again.

MAYOR MICHAEL NUTTER, Philadelphia: Thank you, Judy. Good to be with you. And happy Valentine’s Day to you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you, and to you.

And I want to start by asking you a question we have put to, I think, all of our other guests on the subject, and that is, how do you see inequality in this country?  What does the gap look like to you?

MAYOR MICHAEL NUTTER: I think, unfortunately, Judy, it’s a pretty complex issue, and it is far-ranging. In many instances, certainly here in Philadelphia, it is intergenerational.

It is certainly about income, but it’s also about education. It’s about some folks, quite honestly, losing a sense of hope and can’t really see a vision for the future. It’s about economic investment and what do you see going on in your neighborhood?  What is your access to jobs, the fact that for African-Americans, Latinos and many others of color, the unemployment rate that gets published in the papers is nowhere near reflective of what’s really going on in many of our neighborhoods and other cities all across the United States of America.

So, it is economic, but it’s also about access to health care. It’s about the SNAP program. It’s about fresh fruits and vegetables and do you have supermarkets in your community or not?  So, it’s a wide range of factors that all combine that end up addressing the issue of poverty and inequality, I think, as you laid out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you know, of course, that Philadelphia is one of five places in the country designated by the Obama administration as so-called Promise Zones. What — meaning, what does that mean to your city?  What does — it happened last summer — go ahead, yes.

MAYOR MICHAEL NUTTER: It was just a couple of weeks ago. And I was very, very proud on behalf of the city to, one, have some really great partners to submit that application with, to be designated by President Obama and his administration as one of these Promise Zone areas.

It means a number of things. One, we’re one of the first five in the United States of America, as the president talked about in his State of the Union address in 2013. Two, it means that you will have access to greater federal and private resources when you’re applying for federal grants. Because we’re a Promise Zone, we will get extra points in terms of how we score on those grant opportunities.

The private sector is more inclined to invest in these areas because they know that there is a plan this is. This is about a two-square-mile area, about 35,000 covered in West Philadelphia in a neighborhood called the Mantua section of Philadelphia, partnered with Drexel University and the People’s Emergency Center, Mount Vernon Manner, and LISC, and our own Community and Economic Opportunity Office in my administration.

So you put all of that together, the section of the city has had some challenges, but it also has many positive assets. When you look at the wealth of young people who live in that community and others who are trying to get a better education for themselves and take care of their neighborhood and the housing stock, this is an opportunity for to us pour a significant amount of coordinated resources into an area, transform it, and then use that same model all across the city of Philadelphia to address issues of inequality, and certainly poverty.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, as I understand it, at this point, there’s no federal money connected with it, but it does mean that Philadelphia and these other zones will be eligible for that. But does this send a signal that, in order — you want to correct what I’m saying?

MAYOR MICHAEL NUTTER: Yes, just two fine points.

First of all, there is already significant federal and state and city funding going into this particular area already.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

MAYOR MICHAEL NUTTER: What we’re talking about with the Promise Zone is access to additional dollars going forward.

But through this plan, we have already been able to better coordinate the resources that we’re already getting. And I do want to mention to you, it’s important to us. It may be just a little bit, but our poverty rate now has actually dropped almost two points, down into the 26 percent range, some progress, clearly not enough. We have a lot more work to do, no doubt about it.

But I just want to stay focused on where we are on the ground here in Philadelphia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, thanks for clarifying that, but what I wanted to ask is, does this send a signal, though, that progress — do you believe you believe progress can only come if there are federal dollars attached to it?

MAYOR MICHAEL NUTTER: Well, clearly, cities are not able to, you know, have an overwhelming impact on the larger issue of poverty and income inequality by ourselves.

And so that’s why partnerships certainly with the federal government, and assistance and support from the state, all three levels of government working in partnership, we all represent the same constituents. They all — they pay taxes, and every level of government has a responsibility.

I think what President Obama has done here is very sharp, very straightforward, and very clear, partner, work together, develop a plan, apply it to the federal government, apply it to the corporate and philanthropic communities, demonstrate that you have a plan and can show the partnerships and the stakeholders, again, the many that I talked about earlier, and additional resources will, in fact, come to you.

So I think that this is the model that the federal government is going to use across a variety of departments and agencies, and represents a change in how the federal government will partner directly with cities all across America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, as you know, many Republicans say that so much of the federal money that has been directed at poverty in this country has not had the intended effect.

One of the folks we have interviewed in this series of conversations, my colleague Gwen Ifill this week talked to Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, who talked about the fact that so much money has gone into helping what he called the pain, alleviate the pain of poverty, but it hasn’t helped people come out of poverty.

And he went on to say that part of the problem is a cultural problem, and that the federal government can only do so much, but that part of the problem has to come from people themselves. What do you say to that?

MAYOR MICHAEL NUTTER: Look, I believe in the United States of America’s — again, as the president has said, but I also certainly agree here on the ground, the government does have an obligation to its citizens.

And, clearly, many citizens can utilize and access resources that we have. And there’s always, a part of this is the level of personal responsibility to get engaged and be involved in, you know, raising your children and also trying to make things better for yourself.

That doesn’t mean, though, that local, state, or federal government agencies or leaders can walk away from Americans who are in need. This is the foundation of our country. And I wish that many elected officials, especially at the federal level, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans or in the House or in the Senate, but especially many on the Republican side of the aisle, I wish that they would actually come on the ground and see what’s going on in communities all across the United States of America.

Many of them talk about programs that they barely know what they actually do. And so, proposing to cut the food stamp program, better known now as SNAP, I’m not sure what purpose that’s trying to accomplish. Cutting the Community Development Block Grant Program, I’m not sure what purpose you’re trying to accomplish.

You’re actually hurting the American public. You’re hurting neighborhoods. You’re hurting communities. And so we can’t just run the government on political rhetoric and ideology. These are real people with real challenges and real problems. And the government does have some obligation to try to make things better for Americans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, in just 10 seconds, are you saying they don’t have the information to be making the right decisions on this, or they’re just wrong?

MAYOR MICHAEL NUTTER: Some are just wrong, and some have no idea what they’re talking about.

And some would do better to come on the ground, come walk the streets that I know and see what positive things are going on in communities, how dollars are being utilized, and that their actions and their rhetoric is actually damaging the American public that they claim to want to help.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, we thank you.

MAYOR MICHAEL NUTTER: Thank you, Judy.