Recently, The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story by Phil Goldsmith on the alarming extent of people living in poverty in the city — close to 400,000. The report prompted me to think of ways to move the urban poor back and forth each day from their neighborhoods to the suburbs where jobs are opening up.
I began to think of the federally funded food stamp program (now known as SNAP — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) that has been around for a long time. It works well to feed the poor. Eligible poor people originally got paper stamps that they could use to purchase food. Now the program provides an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card. It works like a debit card and can be used at most grocery outlets and farmers markets.
Based on the food stamp model, I wonder if something that might be called a “Transcard” could now be introduced. It would have to be funded by the city, and that, of course, is a major challenge. It would be used on any public transportation line to move around the metropolitan area at little or no cost to the job-seeking cardholder. Recipients would, of course, have to be poor and ready for work.
Philadelphia has an Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity. If that name means anything at all, it seems like the logical place to begin exploring the Transcard idea.
Perhaps federal and state funds could be attracted. Public-private cooperation is possible. The city could surely look to the many faith communities in the area for help. Special collections for this purpose could be taken up regularly in churches, synagogues and mosques. Corporate philanthropy is a possibility.
If city government is unable to meet the administrative challenges of a program like this, you have to wonder about city government’s ability to serve the poor.
There is a little-known principle of economics that says “to move is to produce.” The Transcard program would move potential producers to settings where products and services would emerge as a result of their labor.
Not all movement need be in the direction of the suburbs. It could be crosstown or uptown and downtown to service, retail and construction employment opportunities. No reason to exclude manufacturing employment, although it is on the decline in most cities.
It just might happen that replacement and repair of abandoned housing in high-poverty neighborhoods might become a reality, thus putting properties back on the tax rolls and enhancing both the quality and quantity of low-income housing.
The count of 400,000 poor people in Philadelphia represents many who are elderly and children and not expected to work, but there are plenty who are able and willing to work but simply unable to find jobs.
Something clearly needs to be done. Transcards could be helpful in the search for a solution to a problem not unique to Philadelphia. The program could be tried in other cities and, indeed, it could trigger federal legislation that, like food stamps, would help the poor wherever public transportation is within their reach.
Jesuit Father Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.