by Jay A. McCalla

Over lunch, some years ago, a friend and I bemoaned the tendency of our local government to offer embarrassingly shallow responses to significant, enduring problems. These thin political salves reflect either a hidden disinterest or a sheer inability to resolve the root problem.

Either way, there is a need to appear – for the voters – to do something while understanding it will produce nothing. My friend and I call this merely “documenting our good intentions.” Less generous fellows might call them “shambolic” gestures.

There’s an acute awareness among many African Americans that schools have failed them, cops target them, and there are no jobs. So, Jim Kenney creates the Mayor’s Commission for African American Male Engagement, with little budget or authority.

Educators have long recognized the benefits of early childhood education, and Mayor Kenney was bitten with the pre-K bug. Almost 40,000 Philadelphia children are eligible and would measurably benefit, but the Kenney plan won’t provide many more than 5,000 slots total after five years. The 35,000 kids and their parents have a decision to make – is pre-K “shambolic” or a mere “documentation of our good intentions.” It was not designed to meet the existing needs of our children, but you can expect it to be a prominent feature of Kenney’s reelection campaign.

The palliative effect of “shambolic” gestures is real. Taking potential critics and “honoring” them with appointment to a mayoral commission, albeit toothless, can pay great benefits. It’s reliably effective politics, usually at the expense of solving the actual problem.

This all came to mind when I considered an old number that rattled in my head: 550,000. That’s the number of Philadelphians who don’t have the requisite skills for a knowledge economy job. It’s a staggering figure.

More than half a million people in our city are confined to menial work for minuscule wages. I’d wager they neither vote nor enrich public discussion with their worthy voices. They are likely to need public assistance simply to live a subsistence life.

In a world where one needs a master’s degree to be career-competitive, what are the opportunities for a soul who cannot adequately read and write?

Last week, I came across a one-year old press release in which Jim Kenney announced he was changing the name of the Mayor’s Office for Literacy to the Commission on Adult Education – the shammiest of shambolic gestures. Proof of the sham is that the budget remains the same as it was in 2011 – a piddling $1 million

Let’s be real clear, here. There are roughly 140,000 kids in our public schools and about $3 billion is committed to their education. Therefore, the $1 million set aside for a half-million adults cynically “documents our good intentions” and nothing more.

Kenney’s little PR dance aside, a city does not possess 550,000 citizens lacking literacy skills unless there is a complete, sincere and long-term lack of concern that stretches across mayors (black and white) and school superintendents (black and white). Bill Clinton was fond of saying “we don’t have a person to waste,” but that isn’t a philosophy shared locally.

Contrast this willful, systemic blindness to the giddy way our pols open-endedly commit the public treasury to fund Papal visits, religious gatherings and the DNC and one can walk away disquieted about our values.

Illiteracy is the opposite of job-ready. If 50 new firms moved to Philadelphia tomorrow morning, it would mean absolutely nothing to the 550,000 city residents with substandard literacy. Those people remain unconnected to whatever prosperity is enjoyed in other parts of their city.

The bottom line is that pols can’t get votes by teaching the illiterate to read. There is no uprising amongst the illiterate and they have no prominent, powerful advocates, so they languish in their hopeless poverty.

They languish, unaware that Kenney just flushed $50 million down the “civic toilet” by needlessly relocating the new Police HQ. They languish unaware that the new Gallery’s I & II (where they won’t be able to afford to shop) were subsidized with tens of millions of tax dollars. But, they aren’t unaware of how little our society thinks of them. That, they know.

Jay A. McCalla is a former deputy managing director and chief of staff for Philadelphia City Council. He does political commentary on WURD900AM and contributes to Philadelphia Magazine. He can be followed and reached on Twitter @jayamccalla1.

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