A struggle to make an honest living

Disappearance of industry leaves a wake of discouraged’ workers

By Alfred Lubrano
Inquirer Staff Writer

One in an occasional series

Bryant Calloway calls himself an “underground man.”

He’s no longer officially in the workforce and not counted on the jobless rolls, but he’s out in the neighborhoods each day, fighting to survive.

“I try to make my living honestly,” said Calloway, 48, of Frankford, a one-time top-40s guitarist-turned construction worker who now does odd jobs and hopes he gets paid. “They lay you off, so then you have to see what you can do for yourself in the streets. It’s a hard, hard way to go.”

A cold morning last week found him balanced on rickety scaffolding in front of a listing North Philadelphia house, re-building a porch roof.

“I’m John Doe out here,” he said in the icy air, as a teared fell from the corner of his eye. “There’s nobody to help me.”

Calloway’s job site is in the heart of the First Congressional District, one of the poorest in America. Between 1950 and 1980, an area of the city that’s east of Broad Street, north of Northern Liberties, and south of Northeast Philadelphia lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs, a brutal hollowing out of a once-vibrant place.

“Loss of jobs had more to do with the blighting of North Philadelphia and nearby neighborhoods than anything else,” said Jim Hilty, a Temple University historian.

Since the 1980s, the area has pancaked further, some micro-neighborhoods registering as much as 50 percent unemployment today, according to Eric Nelson, chief executive officer of the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board, a nonprofit labor advocacy group.

Without jobs or the hope of finding any, the legions of underground men and women like Calloway – officially known as “the discouraged” – scramble to make money any legal way they can.

On the scuffle and under the radar, the discouraged eschew the risk and criminality of the ubiquitous drug trade, choosing instead to clean apartments, care for the elderly, baby-sit, sell dinner platters, create nightclubs in garages, braid hair. Or fix houses.

Along with the discouraged, the district is filled with another class of similarly invisible, nonworking people who receive federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments because they are physically or mentally disabled, or simply too old to work. The maximum SSI payment is $674.

Much of the outside world does not realize that significantly more money is being distributed nationally for SSI – $41 billion in 2009 – than for welfare cash payments – $9.3 billion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington nonprofit that analyzes programs for low-income Americans.

Taken together, the district’s population without jobs – discouraged workers, SSI recipients and unemployed people still actively searching for work – is the teeming legacy of the collapse of manufacturing.

Unemployment in the city is currently 11.2 percent, as compared to the nation’s rate of 9.8 percent and the state’s rate of 8.6 percent. Add the discouraged, and the city’s jobless rate swells to as much as 25 percent, according to David Bartelt, who teaches urban studies at Temple.

Meanwhile, nearly 10 percent of households in the district received SSI payments between 2005 and 2009, the third-highest rate among the nation’s 435 congressional districts, behind only the Bronx and Eastern Kentucky, U.S. Census figures show.

In some areas of the district, the proportion of households receiving SSI payments in that same time period was 40 percent or more.

To survive in the First Congressional District, those living lives without work often band together on their battered and disintegrating blocks, bartering food or favors, coming to each other’s aid in crisis, and telling each other about work whenever they can.

“Half our block is connected in that fashion,” said Marcus Turner, 35, a married Frankford man who was laid off by his moving company in February 2009. He makes money for his wife and three children doing chores for eldery people and family members.

His wife, Tianna Gaines-Turner, 31, is one of the Witnesses to Hunger, part of an advocacy program of women in poverty started at the Drexel University School of Public Health. She works part time as a researcher for the program.

“I’ve had to do neighborhood jobs, too,” she said. “I don’t like cleaning toilets, or washing old people’s behinds. But you do what you have to do”

So many say their lives are day-in, day-out struggles. They feel out of touch with the rest of the city.

“Philadelphia is a city of towns, and we are in the wrong town – North Philly town,” said the Rev. Luis Cortes, president of Esperanza, a national faith-based, Hispanic organization headquartered on North Fifth Street.

“We’re an island, disconnected from the rest of the city. That’s because the city has abandoned us.”

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