Ferrick@Fels: Time to Pay Attention to the Middle Class

Fri, 2012-01-06 11:49

By Tom Ferrick Jr.

Years ago, when the Inquirer was in its glory days and had a platoon of talented editors, writers and photographers, there was an assistant national/foreign editor named Herb.

Herb was a meticulous, intelligent guy whose job was to arrive at 3 p.m., scan the reports from the wire services for national and foreign stories, vet them, edit them and guide them into the next day's paper. In those days, stories did not arrive via computer; they were printed out on teletype machines. Each day, Herb had to confront a pile of paper, containing all the national and foreign stories that had crossed the wires in the previous 12 hours.

Did I mention that Herb was Jewish?

I did not, but as he read through these stories Herb would often pause and say: "This is good for the Jews." Or he would frown and say: "Now, this is bad for the Jews." Herb's dichotomy was not limited to stories about Israel and the Middle East.  The story could be about grain prices in Canada, by-elections in England, a minor realignment of political parties in Germany, a change of government in Poland.

On the receiving end of these comments, was my friend, Howie, who was a deputy editor on the desk. Howie was a Jewish guy from Altoona, who liked Herb a lot but grew weary of the daily good-bad kibitzing.

When he was promoted off the desk, Howie decided to give the folks he left behind a joke gift to insulate them from Herb's daily commentaries.

He ordered up an ink pad and two rubber stamps and he gave them to Herb.
One stamp read: GOOD FOR THE JEWS. The other read: BAD FOR THE JEWS.

When I think about Philadelphia, I make a similar dichotomy. I have two imaginary stamps. One says: GOOD FOR THE MIDDLE CLASS. The other reads: BAD FOR THE MIDDLE CLASS.

By middle class, I don't mean well-to-do folks who live in Center City or Chestnut Hill.  They are wealthy.  A reasonable definition of middle class is any household that makes $50,000 or more a year. 

Think of a bank teller, who earns $24,000 a year married to a SEPTA bus driver who makes $36,000 a year.  They have two children and own a home in Olney. The middle class is probably the most neglected group in the city, not to mention the nation.  The rich have the means to fend for themselves.  The poor have the government paying for health care; food stamps, subsidized housing and there are welfare payments for some. It's no picnic being poor, but there is a government safety net.

The U.S. Census Bureau says there are about 185,000 households in the city with annual incomes between $50,000 and $150,000. That is the city's middle class. It is equal to 1/3rd of all households in Philadelphia.

There are things we know about the middle class in Philadelphia:

They own their own homes. They have a tradition of working hard. They aspire for success for their children and believe that a good education is the path to that success. They tend to be active in their church, neighborhood and block groups.  They pay taxes on their homes and their income (few of them have investment income.) 

In short, they are the backbone of the city.

In looking at poll data, I can tell you that Philadelphia's middle class tends to be service oriented.  Asked to choose between better city services or lower taxes, the majority say they would prefer to keep the services and forego a tax reduction.

They value police protection.  They make a lot of use of city recreation centers and libraries.  They value prompt fire and EMS services.  They want their trash picked up once a week.

Public education is the one area where the middle class is ill served. They often scramble to find alternatives to neighborhood schools, especially at the middle- and high-school level.  They have embraced the charter school movement as an alternative they can afford. Because of high tuition, most private schools are out of reach. They sometimes opt for Catholic schools -- even if they are not Catholic -- because of the discipline and values taught.

There is no doubt the recession has been bad for the middle class. They are suffering layoffs, loss of health care, mortgage foreclosures -- the whole witches' brew created by the economic downturn.

Recently, using census data from 2005-09, I looked all city neighborhoods to see which had changed the most in the last 10 years -- in other words, those that had greatly exceeded the citywide averages and those that had fallen behind.

Most of the ones that had fallen behind were middle-class neighborhoods, most of them clustered in the Lower Northeast, but also in the Northwest: Cedarbook and Stenton, Olney and even East Mount Airy.

There is a term called triage to describe medical practices on the battlefield or in disasters.  When the number of injured exceeds the capacity of the field medical staff, they divide them into threes: those unlikely to survive are treated last; those with minor injuries are treated second; those who are more seriously injured first.

When it comes to neighborhoods, the city has often engaged in reverse triage. It rushes to dying neighborhoods first and pours housing and economic development money into them in the hope of prompting a revival.  It rarely works. The patient's injuries are too severe.  In the same way, the city tends to ignore neighborhoods -- often middle-class neighborhoods -- that a teetering on decline.  These are places where a few million spent on, say, revival of the main commercial strip could make a significant difference. These policies are bad for the middle class.  And what is bad for the middle class is bad for Philadelphia.  In order to remain a sustainable city, we need the middle class.

It's time we paid more attention to their wants and needs.

Tom Ferrick, Jr., a journalist with more than 35 years of experience
as a reporter, editor and columnist, is writing a regular column to keep
the greater Fels community tuned in to Philadelphia. He is currently
Senior Editor at Metropolis, a website offering in-depth news, analysis,
and commentary about the Philadelphia region.