The Promise for a Better City


Sammy Rosin, Associate Editor

Currently, 400,000 people are experiencing poverty in the city of Philadelphia. To give some perspective, 400,000 people is five times the number of people that can fit in the Lincoln Financial Center, twelve times the population of Radnor, Pa, and 330 times the number of students attending Radnor High School. In 2018, Philadelphia City Council published a report that showed Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate of the ten largest cities in the U.S., a list that includes New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. In response to these findings, the City of Philadelphia recently committed millions of dollars to provide stable housing, job opportunities, and help accessing benefits. Distributing these funds requires tremendous expertise, which is where the organization known as “The Promise” comes in. Through ongoing research and private fundraising, The Promise seeks to build on the City of Philadelphia’s Poverty Action Plan to lift 100,000 Philadelphians out of poverty by 2025.

 I spent this past summer interning at The Promise, where I observed the immense amount of work that goes into starting a campaign to end poverty. Forging a better city will take time and effort, but after witnessing The Promise’s endeavors, I have hope that the detrimental cycle of poverty that ravages our City can be extinguished. As residents of Radnor, many of us coast through life shielded from the harsh realities of poverty that exist only 25 minutes away in downtown Philadelphia and its surrounding neighborhoods. Instead, we should acknowledge this injustice and educate ourselves on how to make Philadelphia stronger.

The Promise is based on the understanding that ending poverty in Philadelphia will demand more than short-term solutions. Fundamental change requires long-term investment strategies to create a higher, more sustainable income level for residents living below the poverty line. Rather than collecting food, clothing donations or providing other forms of direct service, The Promise invests money into the community to address systemic causes of poverty. In some ways, The Promise acts as an amplifier. Katy Mahraj, the Managing Director of Operations, explained,  “[The Promise] bring[s] together money from the City, corporations, private philanthropy, and small dollar donors so that each individual donation goes further together.  When larger grants are made toward a specific cause, we can make a bigger difference.” 

The Promise works to bring together organizations that will help the most people possible based on thorough research conducted by experts and feedback from the community. The Promise’s journey began with 10 million dollars from the Philadelphia Poverty Action Fund, sponsored by Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez, after the City released the Poverty Action Plan in 2019. Over the course of my internship, I began to realize that creating real change, especially in the non-profit sector, requires coordination between a plethora of stakeholders, including both organizations and individuals, and implementing that change requires a lot of nudging, deliberating, and adapting. 

For many years, I perceived poverty only as a lack of food, housing, and high quality education. While all of these resources are basic human rights and should be readily available to all people, I learned at The Promise that the inability to access these necessities stems from complex, systemic barriers rooted in our society. Insufficient income stands at the center of all these peripheral issues. Without a sustainable income, it is nearly impossible for anyone to obtain sustenance and shelter, among other essential needs. 

In the past I have been asked, “Why can’t ‘poor people’ just get a job?” To begin, finding employment poses numerous challenges, especially when an individual is already struggling to support themselves and their families. Some of the hurdles people face include navigating the crumbling infrastructure where they live, lacking skills needed to obtain a stable job, and experiencing racial discimination during the hiring process. 

The Promise created the Jobs and Opportunities Challenge to provide more Philadelphians with better paying, stable occupations. In addition to having to navigate the usual obstacles of finding employment, individuals with a criminal record experience even more difficulty. We expect people to return from serving time to integrate back into society, yet their criminal record often prevents them from “getting back on their feet.” As Sarah Hutton, the leader of this initiative, explained, “Previously incarcerated people not only face challenges in finding meaningful employment, they also often face a social stigma. When people feel ostracized from their previous social groups and they are also unable to find work and support themselves financially, it can often lead to recidivism.” 

To increase their chances of finding a stable job, previously incarcerated people can go through the process of record sealing, which prevents employers from seeing criminal charges on an otherwise public record. Record expungement, on the other hand, allows previously incarcerated people to apply for jobs with federal background checks and also clears the charge completely. Once a record has been expunged, Hutton shared, “It can save [formerly incarcerated people] fees, fines, time in court, and taking time off work, if they are able to be treated the way those with no existing record are treated.” In future partnerships, The Promise hopes to expand its reach by addressing the barriers that prevent formerly incarcerated individuals from pursuing record sealing or expungement. 

In addition to encouraging employment opportunities,The Promise hopes to improve Philadelphians’ access to public benefits through the Family Stability Challenge. Every year, millions of dollars of benefits go unclaimed because people do not know how to access the aid or even realize that they are eligible to apply. In 2018, public benefits lifted almost 37 million people above the poverty line in the United States, yet $450 million of benefits go unused every year in Philadelphia. The Promise grantees and subgrantees help families across Philadelphia access these public benefits, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to help pay for groceries, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to assist low-income families with paying their heating bills, and Medicaid, which provides free or low-cost health coverage. Nonprofits working with The Promise also administer free legal counseling and assist in tax preparation. 

While these issues may seem abstract, and you may be wondering what you can do to help as a high school student, understanding the situation is an important first step. Given the many evidence-based solutions for reducing poverty that currently exist, we cannot ignore or accept the difficult conditions that hundreds of thousands of people are currently experiencing in our city. By funding community-based organizations that help under-served Philadelphia residents access benefits and job opportunities, The Promise has the potential to end generational poverty and improve the economy for the entire Philadelphia region. 

As Hutton explained, “By helping to remove long-standing systemic barriers to high-quality employment, we are not only helping ensure that individuals can contribute to the economy in new ways, we are also improving the likelihood that their children and grandchildren will be able to do so as well.”

The Promise’s Twitter:

Check out The Promise’s website: