Who should help the poor? For some, the answer is always ‘Government’.

But advocates of the free market rightly argue that various policies that intend to “assist” poverty-stricken members of our society are counterproductive. They point to the economic maxim that a guaranteed public benefit disincentivizes recipients from pursuing an income that would disqualify them from such a benefit. In other words, guaranteed welfare raises the opportunity cost of seeking employment. If government public benefit programs really worked, we should expect to see fewer people on them over time, not more—especially given that total wealth has been growing over time. Yet Philadelphia’s poverty line has been essentially stagnant over the last decade, despite expansion in 2015 of eligibility for Medicaid and infinite other programs proposed and implemented, like “universal Pre-K” for students, that has yet to materialize or show any gains. 

The question still remains: if the government won’t take care of the poor, who will?

We, the people, will help our fellow man. Voluntarily. Public welfare advocates often scoff at such an answer. Tragically, they can’t fathom that voluntary organizations might help people empower themselves more effectively than the government ever could. But civil society does just this, and we have examples in spades. Government advocates suffer from a lack of imagination — and faith in humanity.

Southern African Americans who moved to northern cities faced problems of adjustment and racial prejudice, and so they organized amongst themselves.

One such civic organization, which has been impacting the lives of Philadelphians for over a century, is the Urban League of Philadelphia. Its mission “is to empower African Americans and other underserved people to secure economic self-reliance, parity, power and civil rights.” This League is itself an affiliate of the larger National Urban League, which emerged as a grassroots movement following the 20th century Great Migration of Southern African-Americans northward. Southern African Americans who moved to northern cities faced problems of adjustment and racial prejudice, and so they organized amongst themselves.

Thus, the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes was founded on September 29th, 1910. By 1920, the name was changed to the National Urban League. Its earliest tasks were counseling black migrants from the south, training black social workers, and researching other problems facing burgeoning Northern black communities. The League has since helped over 850,000 people find jobs or start businesses, 45,000 people buy or keep their homes, and 20,000 improve their health. Over 100 years after its genesis, the League continues to serve Americans across the country under the leadership of Marc H. Morial, whose aims for the League include economic empowerment, health and quality of life, and civic engagement.

Nameless, faceless government welfare programs destroy communities. As economist Thomas Sowell has noted, the percentage of black children raised in two-parent households fell from 78% in the 1960s to 66% thirty years after the welfare state had been implemented. Meanwhile, the Urban League of Philadelphia strengthens communities. Their Philadelphia African American Leadership Development Forum, for example, is geared toward training African American nonprofit leaders, is finely tuned to the particularities of Philadelphia — and boasts alumni including former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and current Councilmember Derek Green. “We really want them to be self-reliant citizens, to be engaged,” notes President & CEO Andrea Custis, during a phone interview. Can you imagine a government agency achieving something so localized, creative, and empowering?

In addition to such innovative, perennial programs, the League offers a diverse array of tools for individuals in need. Their Entrepreneurship Center offers resources to help small business owners, which in 2018 alone trained over 500 small business owners. The League also collaborates with the Philadelphia Job Corps Life Sciences Center and Thomas Edison High School, which allowed young entrepreneurs to begin four different startups two years ago. 

Government advocates suffer from a lack of imagination — and faith in humanity.

The League isable to adapt to ever-evolving social trends in a way that no bloated, lumbering government organization could (by contrast, City Hall recently discovered accounting errors to the tune of nearly one billion dollars) — yielding concrete results. Over the last five years, its Housing Counseling team has serviced 7,500 clients, resolved 640 foreclosures, and assisted 315 families in purchasing their first home. In the same timespan, the League’s Workforce programs have helped over 3,100 clients improve their resumes and interviewing skills and over 700 clients gain employment. Their Technology Workforce initiative has trained 113 clients in the last three years, 54 of whom earned industry-recognized credentials. The League manages all of these initiatives with merely a few dozen staff members. 

Hoa Pham, Director of Workforce Development, says that “I stay in workforce development because everyone has a stake in this. We are all individuals who seek to work. The Urban League is about providing access and opportunities by raising the floor and building ladders to economic opportunity.”

The Urban League of Philadelphia is a wonderful model for how man may help his fellow man, without forceful intervention by the government. As free market advocates, it is incumbent upon us to answer the skeptic who thinks that poor people will starve in the streets absent the State. This League is one such answer, right in our own backyard. While it’s certainly important to explain why government policies and laws are counterproductive, highlighting the superiority of free market alternatives is at least as valuable. Results speak for themselves. 

Thank you, Urban League of Philadelphia, for helping to empower our fellow citizens of Philadelphia.

Logan Chipkin is a freelance writer in Philadelphia and a contributor to Broad + Liberty. @ChipkinLogan

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