Fighting Poverty in Philadelphia and Beyond: A Conversation with Congressman Dwight Evans
Fighting poverty has been a priority for Dwight Evans throughout his career and it has remained a clear focus since he was elected to represent Pennsylvania’s 2nd Congressional District in 2016. Spotlight recently spoke with Evans to understand more about how he is looking to promote opportunity in his Philadelphia-based district and across the country. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Can you talk to us a little about your district and how issues like poverty and economics affect your constituents?
My district has a 26 percent poverty rate. That’s 195,000 people. Philadelphia used to be a manufacturing hub. That’s not the case anymore.
The sociologist William Julius Wilson wrote “When Work Disappears,” and in that book he makes the argument that when jobs leave you see the devastating effect across the community. I am a product of the city of Philadelphia and I’ve witnessed that transformation. At ten years old, I couldn’t define what being middle class meant but I recognized that all the adults in the household were going to various jobs. Simultaneously, my mother encouraged us to go to church each week. Changing economic conditions helped create a breakdown in this value system and then there was the interjection of drugs into these communities.
One of the first things I’ve tried to do in office is identify the various organizations that can help in addressing these problems. If you visit my website, we have a map gallery of the various resources, such as senior centers and libraries, in the district. We’ve done this because I do not believe that government alone can solve poverty. It requires public and private efforts. And I want to understand what institutional infrastructure we can build upon.
We have outstanding colleges and educational systems, medical systems, and other resources in this district. These assets are a crucial part of any solution.
So what do these solutions look like? Can you talk about some of the anti-poverty initiatives in your district?
In West Philadelphia, there is the West Philadelphia Promise Zone as well as the private initiative “Together for West Philadelphia.” The private initiative is driven by the healthcare system Mainline Health and a collaboration of other organizations. They are attempting to address a broad range of issues related to poverty including ensuring that children are in pre-K and daycare.
Additionally, I have recently been working with Congressman Elijah Cummings of Baltimore and Congressman Dan Kildee of Flint on an effort called “Middle Neighborhoods.” These neighborhoods, which make up over 40 percent of Philadelphia, usually have affordable housing, a good quality school system, and are generally safe, but they have the potential for steep decline if we aren’t proactive. We need to make strategic investments in these places so that these areas are fundamentally sustainable.
You’re a member of the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Nutrition. The renewal of the farm bill and the future of the Supplemental Notional Assistance Program (SNAP) has been getting a lot of attention recently. Can you talk a little about the SNAP program and the issue of hunger more broadly?
We need a robust SNAP program. While food banks and other charitable organizations are important, they cannot fully address food insecurity and hunger.
Nobody wants to be on SNAP. Nobody wants to be viewed as poor. They want opportunity. And when you look at our communities, opportunity has not been evenly distributed. In some areas you don’t have good quality jobs that pay living wages with benefits. And that’s the case in Philadelphia, which is one of the poorest big cities in America.
The face of SNAP is also sometimes thought of as only people of color in the inner city. But you have rural Americans, veterans, and others who all rely on this program. It’s important we recognize this as well as the relationships between our growers, distributors, and consumers in ensuring healthy and adequate food. The SNAP program needs to stress these connections.
Are there specific issues within the poverty and opportunity space that especially concern you?
Fifty years, ago, the Kerner Report under the Johnson administration talked about two worlds: one black and one white. These worlds still exist, and while there have been improvements there is still a huge gap. The question is how we address it. How do we provide sustainable opportunities? There needs to be strategic investment to solve this issue.
For example, Trump took the Old Post Office and turned it into a hotel by using tax credits. I’d like to see the same sort of policies used to modernize old school buildings. I think there are opportunities like this that Democrats and Republicans can agree on.
You mentioned that the fight against poverty requires the efforts of not just government but the broader society? Can you say a bit more about that?
We’re at a crossroads in terms of what type of society we want. Dr. King talked about a beloved community, are we our brother’s and sister’s keeper? When I’ve traveled the world, I’ve noticed across cultures the importance of helping others and putting others first. This is something we should not take lightly. And we need to share stories of hope and opportunity.
We have an uneven world in terms of who has wealth and opportunity. And while government has a key role to play, we need to take a holistic approach to these issues and emphasize all of our roles in addressing it.
Dwight Evans is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives where he represents Pennsylvania’s 2nd District which includes: Northwest, West, North, parts of South and Center City Philadelphia, and the western suburbs of Narberth and Lower Merion Township.