In a recent mayoral debate at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Helen Gym, who had been an outspoken opponent of increasing the city’s policing budget in 2020, called gun violence the “single greatest threat to everything that we have ever hoped for in this city.”
Gun violence is ravaging Philadelphia, just as it is Rochester, Indianapolis, Columbus, Louisville, Austin, and six other major cities that suffered record-breaking homicides in 2021—a crisis that shows little sign of waning. Philadelphia has something else in common with those cities: Its officials have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into anti-violence initiatives that have failed to make a dent in the surging levels of violence. It’s a very American approach to a very American problem, as politicians pump money into opaque social initiatives that provide jobs to midlevel bureaucrats who fail to do anything at all.
“Everybody can get a grant, everybody gets paid,” said Jamal Johnson, a former Marine and anti-violence activist in Philadelphia. “It’s the new hustle.”
In a deeply blue city like Philadelphia, the Democratic primary is the de facto election contest. At St. Joseph’s, the debate was dominated by a single issue as candidates spent two hours explaining to an auditorium of students and city residents how exactly they were going to solve the gun violence epidemic. A number of candidates, including Gym, laid out a strategy to declare a citywide state of emergency, potentially triggering a windfall of state and federal funding to help triage the violence.
Money, however, has not been a problem for the leaders of Philadelphia. Last year, Pennsylvania’s governor peeled off $50 million to stem the violence in Philadelphia. And the outgoing mayor, Jim Kenney, signed off on almost a billion dollars in the city budget to beef up the nation’s fourth-largest police force while also picking up the $208 million tab to support dozens of social services programs tailored to combat Philadelphia’s gun violence.
As gun violence has surged nationwide, dispensing massive sums of money to grassroots anti-violence organizations has become fashionable across all levels of government. The appeal, it seems, is that these feel-good initiatives offer something like the “thoughts and prayers” mantra invoked after mass shootings—a way for city officials to demonstrate that they’ve done something even if it has no measurable impact on the problem at hand. …
Part of the problem in Philadelphia boils down to the government’s urgent need to spend money to show that it’s “doing something” despite a lack of viable programs that meet the city’s bare minimum requirements for funding. Several of the programs founded in the wake of the current mayor’s first major funding campaign against gun violence in 2020 are still waiting to launch, as they use their grants to hire staff, build offices, and pen their mission statements. When one of the mayor’s subsequent campaigns sought to spend $22 million on new grassroots programs, only $13.5 million could be handed out because so many of the organizations that applied were incapable of intervening in crisis hotspots or working directly with the population most likely to commit shootings. …
With four months to go until the Democratic primary, it’s possible that more than a few of the candidates currently in the running will decide to drop out. No doubt they’ve all heard the lamentations of outgoing Mayor Jim Kenney. After two police were shot at a holiday event this past Fourth of July, Kenney told reporters he’s all but counting down the days until he’s out of office. “I’m waiting for something bad to happen all the time,” Kenney said. “I’ll be happy when I’m not here, when I’m not mayor, and I can enjoy some stuff.”
It can’t make the job any easier to know that the anti-gun violence programs the city has poured money into haven’t even begun to make the city safer.