Month: January 2014

Reentry in Communities: Cobbs Creek, Philadelphia

*This is an unedited version of research that I conducted into Cobbs Creek that never made it into the final version of my dissertation. This is a work in progress and I hope that you will treat it as such. I do invite feedback and will attempt to respond to careful considerations of my work.


Cobbs Creek is geographically situated in the West Philadelphia area of the City. Cobbs Creek is bounded by Market Street to the north, Baltimore Avenue to the South, 52nd Street to the east, and Cobbs Creek to the west.[1] Cobbs Creek is home to one of the nation’s oldest municipal golf courses, Cobbs Creek Golf Course, which served as a site of racial tolerance throughout its early history. The historic Mt. Moriah Cemetery is also located in Cobbs Creek. The area was originally populated by Lenni Lenape Indians, and later by several groups including the Swedes, and then in the seventeenth century by the English Quakers.

Cobbs Creek was home to dozens of mills during the early part of the industrial boom in Philadelphia. This trend continued until the dawn of the twentieth century, when things began to decline. The Market-Frankford Elevated Train was built in 1906 and completed in 1908, and connected the Upper Darby (69th Street) with Center City and beyond. Much of the housing development in this area followed the building of the train and continued until the just around the time of the Second World War.

In the early days, Cobbs Creek was a predominantly Jewish and Catholic community. The shift in racial composition began in the 1950s, when African Americans began to move into the area, and whites began to flee to the surrounding suburbs. By the late 1960s and early 1970s the area was 90 percent African American working-class. Median income was $9,000, and the average family had between four and six children. At the time, it was reported that Black residents paid two to four thousand dollars more for their homes than the previous white residents.

In the 1970s crime rates soared thanks to illegal drugs and gang violence. In 1971, Cobbs Creek had the highest crime rate for the city. This situation was radically different when compared to 1960, when the community boasted the lowest crime rates in the city. [1] However, a Philadelphia Inquirer journalist described Cobbs Creek in a 1979 story as, “middle-class with quiet, tree-lined streets and two-story brick homes, many with second floor bays. The lawns are neat and covered with roses and azaleas, hedges and coiled hoses.”[2]

Six years later, the city’s first African American Mayor, would green-light the bombing of a home on the 6200 block of Osage Ave. Within 24 hours the damage would leave 61 homes in ruins, and 11 people dead including 5 children, and another 250 people were left homeless.  MOVE., the group at the center of the controversy, was blamed for a long-list of problems including, complaints by community residents that the group was a nuisance. Twenty-seven years later, the many homes on the 6200 block are still boarded up, and community residents remain divided over who to blame. MOVE supporters blame former Mayor Wilson Goode for the hasty, irresponsible, and illegal bombing of their community, and others blame MOVE for escalading tensions that led to one of the largest urban fires in modern history.

Today, Cobbs Creek Park is part of Fairmount Park system, a 9,200 acre city park system that includes 63 neighborhood parks. Cobbs Creek Golf Course remains an active municipal golf course. There are three city-managed playgrounds in the community, and one public library. In 1998, the Cobbs Creek Automobile Suburb Historic District was created to protect more than one thousand Tudor and Colonial revival buildings. Cobbs Creek remains a largely African American working-class community.

Cobbs Creek is facing many challenges that are similar to what other urban communities across the country are facing. Cobbs Creek was identified in a 2007 study, as having between 751-1101 returning ex-offenders in a one-year period. Because reentry is a “hot topic” in public policy circles, and because reentry is likely to impact communities that have already been disproportionately impacted by mass incarceration, it is important to pay close attention to those indicators that are likely to tell us something about what is happening in this community. This information can then be used to try to understand how reentry may be impacting individuals and the community, and to develop grass roots strategies and public policies that are localized and responsive to the needs of people in their own communities.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau the total population of  Cobbs Creek (zip code: 19143) in 2010 was 64,849. It is important to point out that zip code 19143 comprises eleven neighborhoods including, Cobbs Creek.  This is significant because any presentment of data that uses zip codes only, has to be understood in context, rather than in isolation. In an effort to clear up any confusion the data presented in this chapter will be use 19143, and not Cobbs Creek, unless it is appropriate to do so.



The Black population of 19143 in 2010 was 54,647, a number that represents 84.3 percent of the total population of 19143.[3] Compared with 2000, the Black population of 19143 in 2010 has decreased. According to the Cnaan and Frazier report, the total Black population of “Cobbs Creek” in 2000 was 95.9 percent.

While there has been a decline in the percentage of the total Black population of 19143 over the last ten years, there has been very little change in the overall racial make-up of this community. 19143 remains a predominantly African American community.

Age and Gender

75.6 percent of the population of 19143 is 18 years and over; While 71 percent of the population is 21 years and over. In addition, 16.3 percent is 62 years and over; While 13.3 percent is 65 years and over. The lack of young people in any community has devastating consequences including on economic growth and development. Traditionally, older people have relied on young people to care for them. However, this is not necessarily the case any longer. Yet, with an ageing population combined with longer life expectancy it is important to consider how this impacts health care costs, and services such as nursing care, and long-term assisted living for those individuals unable to live alone. The lack of young people may also be a signal that job opportunities are not available in the community. The aging population of 19143 reflects national (and even global) trends. There has been a great deal of research on the impact of aging on economic growth, A 2000 report by the Urban Institute[4] discussed the issue of aging population on the future labor supply, the authors point out that,

Projections show that the percentage of the population between ages 20 and 64 will decline after 2010 and the percentage of people over age 65 will increase dramatically. These changes reflect the short-run effect of the aging of baby boomers (1946–64 birth cohorts) and the long-run effect of reduced fertility and increased life expectancy. If labor force participation rates in each age group remain the same, the ratio of workers to retirees will decline sharply between 2010 and 2030 and continue to decline, although much more slowly, after 2030. The ratio of workers to dependents (children and older adults) will decline by less than the ratio of workers to retirees because the proportion of children in the population will also decline.

A decline in the share of workers in the population means that, if all else remains the same, output per capita and living standards will be lower than they otherwise would have been if the share of workers had remained stable.

In light of these projections, for communities where there is a marked difference between young and old, it seems important to understand how this situation is complicated by reentry. Particularly, because many prisoners and ex-offenders are parents, and their incarceration or ex-offender status has a material impact on their ability to care for young children. Moreover, the care of those young children often falls to ageing parents.

Reentry efforts that are too narrowly focused on immediate or short-term issues and that neglect the long-term outlook of aging as an important economic issue will fail to provide communities with the support they need to deal with both, their aging population and the problems associated with reentry.

Sex and Age

There are more females than males in 19143. According to 2010 Census data, the male population in 19143 is 45.1 percent; While 54.9 percent is female. Moreover, females in 19143 tend to be older, with females 16 years and over accounting for the largest segment of the population in 19143 at 44.6 percent. Females 18 years and over make up 43 percent of the population of 19143, and females 21 years and over 40.7 percent. In contrast, males 16 years and over account for only 34.1 percent of the population of 19143; While males 18 years and over account for 32 percent, males 21 and over make up 30.3 percent of the population of 19143. Again, what these figures tell us is that there are more young men in 19143 than women. Given the concentration around men between the ages of 16 and 21—it is difficult to say what, if any, impact reentry is having on these young men. Any speculation would have to be tested against other data. When race is accounted for the picture begins to come into focus regarding the disparities between men and women in 19143.

The median age for Blacks in 19143 is 35.5. The median age for Black males is 32, and for Black females 38.6. This phenomenon is similar to what Du Bois documented in the Seventh Ward in 1899. He found that, “scanning this population more carefully, the first thing that strikes one is the unusual excess of females.”[5] Du Bois attributed the excess of females to the availability of employment for women as domestics in northern cities such as Philadelphia. In 1899, there were clear restrictions that impacted Black employment in general, with the consequence affecting Black males more acutely.

Today, “changes in the unemployment rate for women and men transcend race, ethnicity, and nativity.”[6] Contrary to what had been true for every economic recovery since 1970, for the first time in modern history, women lost jobs compared to men. Not only are women failing to find jobs, but they are losing jobs. However, it would be a mistake to assume that the recession hit women harder than men. According to Pew Research, “over the full arc of the recession and recovery to date, the weakness in the economy has been harder on men.”[7]

These findings reflect national trends, but have consequences for communities, especially communities affected by reentry. For example, as Cnaan and Frazier point out, 85 percent of ex-offenders are male, and 70 percent are African-American.[8] Moreover, we also know that in Philadelphia nearly 40,000 ex-offenders are released every year.[9]

Two issues become apparent in light of these figures. One, any effort to target employment in communities where reentry is a problem need to account for the different needs between men and women. Two, the problem of reentry further complicates the employment prospects of both male and female ex-offenders, as well as other residents in the community. More work needs to be done to understand the extent to which these disparities are owing to or inclusive of individuals who are labeled ex-offenders.

While it is impossible to ascertain from the disparity between males and females in 19143 how many females currently living in the community are ex-offenders we can draw some comparisons based on national figures. Between 1995 and 2006 the rate of women in prisons increased by 64 percent.[10] By mid-year 2006, 10 percent of the total prison population of over 2 million, were women.[11] 65 percent of women report being parents to children under 18 years old, and 64 percent of women lived with their children before going to prison compared to only 44 percent of men.[12] While 40 percent of women in state prison held full-time jobs prior to their arrest, nearly 60 percent of males had full-time jobs.[13] Consequently, as more and more women return from prison to communities their needs will differ from those of their male counterparts, and reentry efforts need to recognize these differences. While Cnaan and Frazier argue that women are over-served compared to men[14] it is unlikely that women are receiving the full-range of services they require in order to fully reintegrate into the community. As a result, mass decarceration has the potential to undermine individual capacity, for women as much as it has for men, but more significantly reentry has the potential to alter whole communities.

It remains to be seen what impact decarceration will have on the children of former female ex-offenders, and how the aggregation of an entire generation of their children concentrated in a handful of communities will do to redefine community efficacy. In light of the fact that more males go to prisons than females, and that females continue to be the primary caregivers for both children and aging parents it will be important to understand how the rise in incarceration rates of females along with their eventual release shapes communities in the long-term. Policy initiatives or reforms that neglect to address the role of females within their own homes and at the level of communities run the risk of missing an important aspect of reentry.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how woefully binary the literature is in terms of gender. Out of the dozens of reports that I read, not a single one addressed the issue of transgender or transsexual ex-offenders. If I didn’t know better I would think that there are no transgender or transsexual ex-offenders. Surely, this is not the case. Moreover, and equally as important as the gendered carceral system, is the wholesale neglect of LGBTQ issues in the literature on reentry. Again, if I didn’t know better I would think that there were no LGBTQ ex-offenders. Surely, this is not the case.


The percentage of married, absent, males in 19143 was 3.34 percent, compared to 1.89 percent nationally. Over 3 percent of married males reported they were separated, compared to only 1.18 percent nationally. 16.5 percent of males reported being married and together. This figure is significantly lower, by almost half, the national 32.26 percent reported.

12.87 percent of females reported being married and together, compared to 30.66 percent nationally. 3.60 percent of females reported being married and separated, compared to 1.67 percent nationally. The percentage of women in 19143 reporting they have never been married was 41.67 percent, compared to 18.47 percent nationally.

The number of widowed females was also higher in 19143 than at the national level, 10.28 percent and 6.47 percent, respectively.

Only 8.52 percent of females in 19143 reported being divorced. A figure that is slightly higher, but close to the 7.83 percent of divorced females nationally. While the number of married females was significantly lower at 19.72 percent in 19143, compared to 33.84 percent nationally.

44.23 percent of males reported never being married, compared to only 22.17 percent nationally. 2.58 percent of males in 19143 reported being widowed, compared to 1.64 percent nationally. 7.55 percent of males reported being divorced, compared to 6.05 percent nationally. 22.97 percent of males reported being married, compared to 35.33 percent nationally.

What this reveals is that in 19143 there are fewer married women than men, and the rate that both genders report being separated is nearly equal for 19143, but nearly double the national rate. The rate of unmarried women in 19143 is more than twice as much than at the national level. Similarly, divorce is slightly higher in 19143 than at the national level, but not by much. Leaving the moralizing that Du Bois has been rightly criticized for aside for the moment, it is difficult from these figures alone to determine why the disparities exist. We can speculate that marriage is not viewed as economically viable or necessary, as is the case among the middle and upper classes. It may be the case that women are choosing to remain unmarried in defiance of established social norms and expectations, and that they are no less satisfied in their sexual, parental, and living arrangements than women who are legally married. However, without ethnographic research to support these claims it is difficult to say. It would be a mistake to assume that in this day and age that unmarried women are unhappy, unfulfilled, and unsatisfied subjects rather than conscious, self-fulfilled agents who view marriage as an arcane institution.

In terms of why many men in 19143 are not married, we need to be cautious about the claims we make. Marriage is an expensive commitment and the economic situation for many men, especially those who are returning from prison, is precarious and uncertain. The instability that come from unemployment and discrimination that accompany being an ex-offender do not inspire confidence in potential long-term partners who may not want to condemn themselves to a lifetime of uncertainty. However, we do know that partnerships (whether married or not) tend to endure when it is the male partner who is the ex-offender. Women have yet to find the support and commitment of partners that will remain with them through incarceration and reentry.

In 1899, Du Bois sought to remind us that marriage among free Blacks was a new institution. He wrote,

First it must be remembered that the Negro home and the stable marriage state is for the mass of the colored people of the country and for a large percent of those of Philadelphia, a new social institution.[15]

What Du Bois neglected to address was that fact that the advent of the patriarchal family undermined both the economic and social condition of women by changing the family from a public/communal arrangement where women had economic and sexual freedom to a private one in which the role of women was seen as subservient to the male. In this way, marriage mirrors social hierarchy where men are the bourgeois and women are the proletariat. The male is the presumed bread-winner and the female is the caregiver and housekeeper. What would it mean, if, for example, as a consequence of mass decarceration these traditional gender roles are no longer satisfactory for managing the day to day reality within individual households and communities? What would it mean if individuals are consciously opting out of traditional marriage because it is neither convenient, necessary, nor relevant to their lived experience?[16]

Cultural conservatives may find these questions difficult to grapple with and not important within the framework of the criminal justice system or reentry, but if all of the lip-service paid to preserving families and providing for children is to see its way into policies then an engagement with these issues is necessary. It may very well turn out that upon further study, marriage no longer holds the sway it once did and that recent trends toward putting off marriage or not getting married at all among the well-to-do reflect the long-standing view among the less-well-off that marriage is unnecessary and not merely economically inconvenient.

In light of this, it is clear to see that Du Bois was absolutely wrong when he said that,

The great weakness of the Negro family is still lack of respect for the marriage bond, inconsiderate entrance into it, and bad household economy and family government. Sexual looseness then arises as a secondary consequence, bringing adultery and prostitution in its train. And these results come largely from the postponement of marriage among the young. Such are the fruits of sudden social revolution.[17]

It may very well be that the greatest strength in African American communities turns out to be a rejection of bourgeois values beginning with the rejection of marriage.

Household Income

The percentage of households in 19143 with incomes less than $15,000 in 2011 was 24.30 percent. This is figure is more than double the national level of 11.58 percent.

The percentage of households with incomes between $15,000-$24,999 was 13.52 percent in 19143, compared with the U.S. at 9.29 percent. The percentage of households with incomes between $25,000-$34,999 was 12.85 percent for 19143, compared with 9.54 percent for the U.S.

While the percentage of households  in 19143 with incomes between $35,000 and $49,999 was higher than national figures, at 14.89 percent, compared with 13.14 percent for the U.S; the percentage of households with incomes between $50,000-$74,999 was lower at 15.88 percent, compared with 17.90 percent at the national level. Similarly, the percentage was lower (9.46 percent) for households with incomes between $75,000-$99,999 in 19143, compared with 13.23 percent nationally.

Only 4.54 percent of households in 19143 reported incomes between $100,000-$124,999, compared with 8.83 percent at the national level.

Median household income for Blacks in 19143 was below the national figure at $31,578 and $38,851 respectively. The average income for Black households in 19143 was significantly below the national average at $39,926, compared to $51,221.

What this reveals is that there are a disproportionately high number of households in 19143 that fall below the federal poverty measure of $22,350 for a family of four.[18] In every subsequent income bracket household income in 19143 was higher than national figures except between $50,000-$74,999, where it is slightly below national average. This is significant because the way that communities with large numbers of ex-offenders are traditionally represented is as low income or extremely poor. While 19143 residents are not economically wealthy, they are nonetheless solidly working class and earning respectable incomes.

This is important in terms of reentry because the image that one gets from much of the policy literature, and which may apply to many communities, but not all, is that communities where ex-offenders live are poverty stricken, full of drug dealers and welfare queens. This distorted image is wrong, and the data illustrate that this is not the case for 19143. However, a thorough ethnographic study would reveal the extent to which perception coheres with reality or departs from it.



In 2011, nearly 27 percent of households in 19143 reported rents between $250 and $499. This is significantly higher than the 19.62 percent of households in the U.S. Similarly, 41.3 percent of households reported rents between $500 and $749. When compared to national level data, only 27.09 percent households reported paying rents in this range.

What this reveals is that rents in 19143 remain significantly lower than at the national level. It also indicates that the private rental market has not been able to capitalize on the upward trend in rents that have been reported in other parts of Philadelphia or across the country.  Interestingly, there is little difference between 19143 and national level data for percentage of households with no cash rent in 2011; 5.26 percent and 5.80 percent, respectively.

It is clear that there are other factors affecting the rental market in 19143 including, age of the housing stock, the mostly residential nature of the community, and the perception of the neighborhood as crime ridden and drug infested. However, upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that there are a number of factors that work in the community’s favor including, it’s relative proximity to Center City Philadelphia, a commitment to maintaining green space and natural resources through a well-integrated park system, and an overwhelming number of homeowners in the area who represent continuity and stability. While these things may not attract young upwardly mobile professionals to the area, they are important factors in studying communities.

In terms of reentry, the private rental market holds little promise. There are virtually no landlords who don’t stipulate in their advertisements that criminal background checks will be conducted, and who often clearly include lease clauses that prohibit the leaseholder from allowing anyone with a felony to reside in the unit. Given these restrictions, if thousands of individuals are unable to secure housing via the private market, and they have fractured, or in some cases broken family ties as a result of their criminal past, and they are unable to live in public housing because regulations prohibit them from doing so, what options are left? There are virtually no transitional housing facilities in the community, and certainly no organizations that operate such facilities in the areas where ex-offenders often reside (these tend to be located in Center City). The consequences of this in light of clustering may mean homelessness for some, and/or precarious and unsteady living arrangements which undermine reentry success in general, but more importantly is likely to contribute to the difficulty in securing and maintaining employment, meeting family obligations including assisting partners in raising children, and meeting all of the court mandated probation or parole requirements.[19]

In light of the fact that the median year that renters moved into 19143 was 1995 compared to 1997 for Philadelphia, it appears that contrary to conventional wisdom, 19143 is a community, and it remains a place where people set down roots. While the longevity of residents may be an indicator of personal economic stasis, and other factors restricting the mobility of families and individuals en masse, it could very well be that 19143 is a community that offers something to residents that is not quantifiable, but no less important.


More than half of owner households had a mortgage in 2011, 55.56 percent. This figure is significantly lower than at the national level, where 68.30 percent of owner households reported having a mortgage. While the proportion of mortgage holders in 19143 is below the national average, this figure illustrates that homeownership remains an important goal in African American communities.

More than 44 percent of owner households had no mortgage in 2011. A figure that is significantly higher than the 31.7 percent at the national level. What this tells us is that 19143 is a community of homeowners many of whom own their homes outright. This fact flies in the face of much of the discussion regarding African American communities as places that are full of transient and shiftless individuals.

Homeownership is vitally important to understanding the consequences of reentry in communities. First, due to federal laws barring convicted felons from residing in public housing, released individuals are left with few options. Many individuals rely on family support during the first few months of release and some indefinitely. In communities where most residents are private homeowners and where it has been shown that ex-offenders cluster in these areas, it is clear to see that the long-term prospects for individuals, their families, and communities are much better when families can remain intact and under the same roof. Second, in communities where homeownership is relatively high compared to renters, the impact of reentry, particularly relating to high-concentration, is likely to be less devastating financially to families because they don’t have to worry about the private rental market and landlords who often discriminate against anyone with a criminal past. While homeownership is not a panacea it does appear to offer communities with large numbers of ex-offenders an anchor and as much of the research on individual success or reentry has illustrated, housing is one of the most important needs for newly released individuals and the most difficult to secure next to employment.

Theoretically, homeownership has been an indicator of community stability. However, in light of the 2008 economic collapse, analysts are reconsidering this notion, and have looked to places like New York City, and its long-standing and thriving neighborhoods where renters far outnumber homeowners as examples.

Because homeownership has symbolized the achievement of the American Dream to question the wisdom of what has been considered by many to be a birthright– is tantamount to treason. Yet, for a growing segment of the American populace who used the equity in their home to finance improvements and other purchases, and who found themselves upside down (owing more than their home was valued) as a result of the collapse, renting has supplanted the pursuit of homeownership. For this group the benefits of ownership no longer seem viable, and a growing number of families are opting to rent, and rent long term. For example, in Center City Philadelphia, 86 percent of adults 34 and younger are renters.[20]

The implications of this shift in economic values have yet to be understood, and there has been a backlash against those who have suggested that the idea of homeownership needs to be interrogated. It is clear, however, that cities and communities within cities will have to provide a range of benefits to the urban consumer including public transportation options, affordable, low-cost and safe housing, not to mention all of the amenities that are associated with modern city living regardless of whether residents are bound to the neighborhood by a mortgage instead of a lease is becoming less important than in times past.

Home Heating

The percentage of households in 19143 who use electricity as their primary source of heating fuel was 5.91 percent. This figure is significantly lower when compared with the 34.26 percent of households nationally. Electric heating is usually less expensive than gas. However, in order to understand the low percentage of households who use electricity to heat their homes, one must take into account the fact that in older homes and in communities where many residents’ income is relatively modest, there is little possibility of modernizing or upgrading to install the requisite vents, wires, etc., that would be associated with installing electric heat.

Kerosene was the primary source of heating fuel for more than 12 percent of households compared to 7.15 percent nationally.  Kerosene is cheap, but also dangerous. Of the four deaths attributed to the use of space heaters in Philadelphia in 2010, 2 were from kerosene.[21]

Six homes in 19143 reported using wood as their primary source of fuel. Not only is wood an expensive and unsustainable option, it is woefully outdated and inefficient given the demands of modern urban life. While there is no evidence to suggest that households in 19143 are considering adopting the use of wood as their primary heating source, it is important to understand both the environmental impact associated with using wood, and also to consider the safety concerns for a densely populated community where the potential exists for damage to surrounding properties not to mention the potential human toll. These considerations should be taken into account regarding policies that would provide financial assistance to families who cannot afford install either electric or gas heating in their homes. For families who are opting to use wood by choice and not out of financial necessity, there needs to be room to accommodate the freedom of homeowners with those of the community. However, given the very low percentage and absolute number of households in 19143 using wood heat, this may not be a viable public policy option to pursue.

More than 79 percent of households in 19143 rely on utility gas as their primary source of heating fuel. This is nearly 30 percent higher than at the national level, where only 49.73 percent of households rely on expensive gas utility. This is particularly significant because residents who depend on the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) received an average grant of $408 in 2011; the benefit covered only 8 percent of household energy bill. LIHEAP recipients constitute the most vulnerable and least economically secure population including the elderly, persons with disabilities, and children under five. It must be noted that as of 2010, only 44 properties in 19143 received Utility Emergency Service Funds (UESF) through Philadelphia Gas Works. A slightly higher number of properties, 70, received UESF through PECO. In spite of the financial hardship that high utility bills may impose on residents, it appears that many are managing without assistance. This could be attributable to income guideline restrictions or lack of awareness of the programs that exist to support residents. However, more information is needed before any final determination can be made regarding why so few residents are receiving these funds.

Perhaps most surprising, is that 0.43 percent of households in 19143 reported using no heating fuel. While in comparison to the national figure of .88 percent, it appears much lower, it still means that nearly one-half of one percent of the population in this community has no heating. This situation may not pose much of a problem in states located in the south and parts of the southwest, where temperatures remain substantially higher year-round. However, in the northeast, where even during the most mild of winters, temperatures dip well below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, having no heating fuel is not only deplorable, it is dangerous.

There were no homes in 19143 that relied on solar energy. This may seem surprising given all of the talk of using renewable sources. However, when compared to the national level of 0.03 percent of homes that rely on solar energy as a primary source of fuel, the absence of solar energy in homes in 19143 is not at all shocking.

There are efforts at the national level to offer financial incentives to cities to increase solar energy access and implementation. One of the largest efforts currently underway is the Department of Energy’s “Rooftop Solar Challenge,” which has set aside $12 billion for cities to transition to renewable energy sources. In Pennsylvania, for example, Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future (PennFuture) received just over $315,000 to create a benchmark zoning ordinances and to offer low-interest loans for more than a half-million residents. Unfortunately, these funds were allocated for use in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, not Philadelphia.

It may not be obvious to the casual observer that there is a relationship between home heating and ex-offender reentry. However, the fact remains that home heating along with food and housing, account for a large portion of most family budgets. For individuals newly released from prison finding a home and securing employment remain the two biggest hurdles to successful reentry. The costs associated with managing a home (whether it is owned or rented) are not usually addressed as part of the financial calculus of reentry. While there are strict income guidelines for renter eligibility and homeownership, these often far exceed the income guidelines for heating assistance programs including LIHEAP. For example, LIHEAP eligibility cannot exceed 160 percent of federal poverty. This means that for a family of four the income limit is $33,525 gross.

Perhaps more significantly is the fact that ex-offenders who have been convicted of a drug crime including possession, use, or distribution, are barred from receiving federal welfare benefits unless they live in a state that has fully opted out of the ban. To date, only five states have fully opted out of the drug ban, they include, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Ohio and Oklahoma. While states may modify eligibility only about a dozen states have done so. The consequences of such legislation have profoundly impacted drug treatment programs that have historically relied on federal welfare benefits for a substantial portion of their operating budgets. In addition, the ban undermines diversion programs, specifically drug and alcohol programs that also rely on federal welfare benefits. In turn, the potential for incarcerating large numbers of non–violent individuals who need treatment and not prison remains an enduring reality, and a challenge to states’ budgets, criminal justice system, and human services organizations. [22]

Housing Value

The median housing value for owner-households in 2011 was $71,965; a figure that is significantly below the national median value of $188,305. Less than 1 percent of households in 19143 were valued at below $30,000, which is below the national figure of 1.31 percent. Nearly half of households in 19143 were valued between $40,000-49,000 on the low-end of the spectrum, and between $70,000-79,000 on the high-end; with the greatest percentage (12.15 percent) falling between $60,000-69,000.

There were very few households in 19143 valued between $100,000-$124,000 (6.97 percent), compared to the national level at 8.04 percent. Only 1.42 percent of households came close to the $188,000 national median value. However, 2.68 percent of households were valued between $200,000 and $249,000. Likewise, nearly 3 percent of households in 19143 reported values between the $250,000 and $299,000. An even higher percentage, 3.30 percent of households reported values between $300,000 and $399,000. While another nearly 3 percent reported household values between $400,000 and $499,000.

To further illustrate the significance of home values it is important to look at where Philadelphia stands in relation to other cities. According to a publication by the Commonwealth Housing Development Corporation, the average housing value for Philadelphia when compared to peer cities was $115,000. Only Detroit and Pittsburgh had lower home values out of twenty cities listed. This means that Philadelphia home values were significantly below the U.S. average of $185,200, and lagged behind sixteen other cities. The report found that 12 percent of Philadelphia’s owner-occupied homes are structurally inadequate, compared to 6 percent for peer cities. Furthermore, the report’s author states that a minor investment of $6,911 could prevent the abandonment of residential properties and save the city nearly six times that amount if the homes are unoccupied.[23]

Between 2000 and 2006, Philadelphia lost more homes to deterioration than to foreclosures. This is significant to the city as whole, and to 19143 in particular because the housing stock in 19143, as in much of Philadelphia, is relatively old, and its residents are not economically positioned to make costly and needed repairs to their properties.[24] The following quote illustrates exactly what the policy priorities should be in light of the current national economic situation,

As a time when a national priority is to keep households in their homes, Philadelphia should invest in the preservation of occupied existing homes that are affordable to Philadelphia’s working families. Ensuring that Philadelphia’s occupied homes remain viable will protect the city’s supply of workforce housing, prevent further residential abandonment and stabilize neighborhoods.[25]

In an effort to meet the needs of low-income residents in the city the Basic System Repair Program (BSRP) was established to provide free emergency repairs to homes in Philadelphia. The program also covers extensive repairs up to $17,500 to households with income at 150 percent of federal poverty. More than 99 percent of households that received BSRP grants between 1995-2000 remained in their homes; while less than 1 percent were abandoned.[26]

The implications of the BSRP for communities like 19143 are significant. However, because the program was administered in a way that spread grants to individual homeowners throughout the city, no single community benefited from the program’s contribution en masse. It has been recommended that in the future BSRP grants be geographically targeted at neighborhoods that are already undergoing revitalization. This move would be detrimental to communities like 19143 where homeowners account for nearly half of the residents, and where the housing stock dates to the early twentieth century.

In light of ex-offender reentry, communities that are stable in terms of residents and particularly homeowners, are better positioned to respond to mass decarceration in ways that other communities may not. Home values are an important component in the community reentry matrix. For communities that are home to large numbers of ex-offenders having families who are homeowners provides a stable foundation during the difficult transition from incarceration to community. Not only does the potential exist for families to remain intact, but when home values remain stable or increase slightly, it provides households with financial security—something that few ex-offenders would be able to achieve on their own. Theoretically, the more financially stable households are, the more interest and care they will take in their community. However, it is misleading to assume that economic condition is the only factor shaping communities. 19143 is a community of owner-occupied households that in spite of overwhelming challenges are managing to remain intact and provide a home for their families.

Year Built

More than 43 percent of housing in 19143 was built in 1939 or earlier, compared to 12.3 percent nationally. Nearly 34 percent of housing in 19143 was built between 1940 and 1949, compared to 6.07 percent nationally.

There were very few new homes built in 19143 between 2000-2004 (0.60 percent), and only slightly more between 2005-2011 (0.82 percent). These figures are significantly below the national level of 9.18 percent and 3.47 percent, respectively.

A 2008 manual on Philadelphia Rowhouses describes the dominant architectural landscape of the city as follows,

Philadelphia rowhouses outnumber all other housing types as they have always been the most space-efficient and cost-effective way to provide homes for a rapidly growing industrial city. Businesses could thrive if their workers could easily get to work, which is why most rowhouses are found clustered around factories and the active waterfronts.[27]

Philadelphia, like many other major cities, saw a decline in its population during the 1950s and 1960s. Much of the decline is owing to the lack of jobs in cities, but it is also attributable to ‘white flight.’ In the wake of rapid shifts in neighborhood composition much of the infrastructure has remained largely unaltered in many communities since the late 1960s. 19143 is an example of a community that experienced rapid shifts in its racial composition. During much the early part of the twentieth century and up until the 1950s, the Cobbs Creek neighborhood, was predominantly a Jewish community. African-Americans moved in beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, while the previous residents sought opportunities elsewhere. Moreover, the completion of the Market-Frankford Elevated train made Center City Philadelphia much more accessible to residents in the community. While many factories surrounding the Cobbs Creek area and further east shut their doors altogether, others moved to the suburbs. The economic decline of the city and its neighborhoods continued with the Civil Rights Movement serving as the backdrop to the urban decay in Philadelphia and its many neighborhoods. The loss of industrial work had a significant impact on low-skilled labor that remained vulnerable to the vicissitudes of a global economy. By the late 1970s and early 1980s the introduction of cheap and available crack cocaine and the War on Drugs acted in concert to reshape communities across the country. The shift from rehabilitative models of justice to more punitive and retributive forms meant that more people were going to prison than ever before. By the 1990s the prison industrial complex had become a dominant fixture in the lives of many African-American communities. At the close of the first decade in the twenty-first century, another shift was occurring that would have similarly profound consequences for African-American communities, decarceration.

One might ask what the history of the area has to do with the current conditions of reentry, let alone with the age of the housing stock of any community. However, it would be short-sighted to assume that these issues are disconnected. During the last several years, efforts to preserve the current housing stock in the city and modernize it have raised some interesting issues. For example, the Philadelphia Task Force on Weatherization and the Workforce stated that one its goals was to “establish linkages with existing Philadelphia Building Trades apprenticeship programs in order to foster greater participation by women and minority workers in unionized building trades.”[28]However, in their final analysis the authors stated that, “the massive scale workforce development effort contemplated by the City would not be needed.”[29] In addition, the state’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) failed to provide direction regarding wage rates which made it impossible for the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation (PHDC) and The Energy Coordinating Agency (ECA) to solicit bids because “they would not be able to set their pricing without knowing the labor rates that apply, and their bidders would not be able to make necessary judgments about whether participation in the program is a sound business decision.”[30] Not only did the state undermine its own efforts by not providing a clear standard for wages to its contractors, but its plan to target only residents who used the most fuel disadvantaged residents of apartment units and multi-family dwellings. For 19143, a community with a significant number of renters these decisions illustrate the intricate web of policies that appear well-intentioned, but in practice work against communities. Similarly, efforts by Philadelphia Gas Works and PECO energy to reduce consumption among low-income residents require coordination with the state’s WAP and non-low-income customers to retrofit homes with cost-saving units. Again, the consequences for a community like 19143 are manifold.

It has been shown that minor repairs and maintenance improves home values. For older homes these repairs are necessary to the short and long-term stability of the community. Community stability is an important component of reentry, particularly in neighborhoods that are experiencing a high-rate of returning ex-offenders. Moreover, the potential for developing jobs in this industry could open new avenues for individuals who are newly released from prison and prevent many from returning to prison if they can secure viable employment in the legal economy. The ageing housing stock of the city and the surplus of units[31] can be seen as opportunities to address the city’s other major problem, reentry. Training a large, and currently idle workforce to repair homes throughout the city seems a much better use of tax-payer dollars than warehousing individuals in prisons. Policy initiatives have yet to catch up with the needs of communities.

Year Moved In

Close to 17 percent of residents in 19143 moved into their homes in 1969 or earlier, compared with only 5.56 percent nationally. Nearly 11 percent moved in between 1970 and 1979. Between 1980 and 1989 this figure dropped to 10.40 percent. This drop was followed by a spike between 1990 and 1999, of 16.11 percent. Nearly 20 percent of residents moved into their homes between 2000 and 2004, and 26 percent in 2005 or later.

What this reveals is that more than a quarter of the population of 19143 has lived in their homes for approximately 33 years. While another 27 percent have lived in 19143 between 13 and 32 years. The remainder of residents moved in more recently, but they have lived in the community for at least 7 years, in some cases longer.

The conventional wisdom states that communities with large numbers of ex-offenders tend to be populated by individuals who are transient or who are not “tied” to the community. What this perspective neglects are the realities associated when large numbers of individuals are forced to find housing in areas specifically because of their status as ex-offenders. What this perspective also neglects are communities where there is little turn over in the residential population outside of those who are returning from prison.

While a great deal more study into the current residential shift in light of the ex-offender population in 19143 is needed to say with certainty that there is a correlation between reentry and the year that residents moved in, it remains clear that in spite of reentry, 19143 residents are anything but transient. As thousands of individuals continue to be released to this and other communities in the city it remains to be seen whether long-term residents will remain, or if and where financially possible, move to other areas. However, assuming that the individuals returning to the community are related to long-term residents, it would follow that these families would choose to stay in their homes and in their communities regardless of the number of other ex-offenders in the neighborhood.

Housing, Occupied Units

86.39 percent of housing units in 19143 were occupied in 2011. This is slightly below the national figure of 88.34 percent. The percentage of vacant units sold and not occupied was .93 percent, compared to 5.02 percent nationally. The percentage of vacant units for rent was 11.28 percent; Far lower than 19.40 percent nationally. More significantly, 55.06 percent of housing was owner occupied, compared to 66.94 percent nationally. While 44.94 percent of units were renter occupied, compared to 33.06 percent nationally.

What this reveals is that there are few vacant properties in 19143, and of those that are vacant and for rent are in suitable condition to pass inspection and are habitable. While a great deal of the housing in this community is owner occupied, 19143 lags behind the national average. In addition, renters make up a substantially large portion of the community and renters in 19143 far outpace the national average.

What remains to be seen, as a consequence of reentry, is if there will continue to be an upward push on renter occupied units rather than owner occupied units. Taking into consideration the factors noted previously, it is important to reiterate that owner occupied units in 19143 and other communities with large numbers of returning ex-offenders contributes to community stability. Should a radical shift occur from owner to renter units many of the underlying systemic problems that are present in other communities with more transient populations and unoccupied units could manifest themselves in 19143. It would be prudent to understand in more detail how reentry is currently impacting 19143 and how renter occupied units may be undermining community efficacy. However, it should not be assumed that renters are a problem population, especially given the current housing market and the global economic conditions that have profoundly and forever changed homeownership in this country.


37.24 percent of residents in 19143 completed high school. This figure is slightly below the 38.85 percent of Pennsylvania residents, but much higher than the U.S. at 29.24 percent.

17.07 percent of residents in 19143 had some college. This is higher than Pennsylvania where only 15.01 percent reported they had some college, but much lower than the U.S. at 20.56 percent.

6.15 percent of residents in 19143 completed an associate’s degree, which is slightly lower than the 6.94 percent of residents in Pennsylvania and lower than the national rate of 7.50 percent.

7.7 percent of residents in 19143 completed a bachelor’s degree. This is significantly lower than the 15.74 percent of Pennsylvania residents, and the 17.52 percent of U.S. residents.

6.91 percent of residents in 19143 completed a graduate degree compared to 9.42 percent at the state level, and 9.84 at the national level.

In addition, 1.02 percent of residents in 19143 hold doctorate degrees, compared to 1.14 percent nationally.

What these figures reveal is that contrary to the popular perception predominantly African-American communities are not populated with an uneducated class. There are more residents in 19143 who have completed high school than at the national level. This fact is not something that finds its way into policy reports. There is something to be gained, perhaps, by perpetuating the myth that African American communities are full of people who are uninterested in education. Yet, there is little to be gained from treating all communities in a monolithic fashion.

In addition, more residents in 19143 have some college and a non-trivial percentage have completed an associate’s degree. Given the current state of higher education with rising costs and fewer aid programs available across the board, it is clear that residents in this community value higher education and have managed to make the financial sacrifice in order to get an education.

At the graduate level there is a slight difference between residents in 19143 and those at the state or national level. At the doctoral level there is almost no difference between residents in 19143 when compared with those at the national level. This may surprise some people.

What this illustrates is that the way the problem is presented is misleading, and what is needed are more studies that look closely at what is happening within communities rather than generalizing and theorizing about what we believe to be happening. The perception that young, African American men and women are uneducated, and see no value in investing in higher education would quickly erode if we presented counter-histories that illustrated the lived experience of people within their communities, but there is little incentive to do this on either side of the political isle. Republicans might see these figures and assume that 19143 is representative of all or most African-American communities and use this opportunity to cut funding to education programs in K-12 that contribute to more people going to college. Democrats might see these figures and decide that they have to counter the example of 19143 with examples from other communities that are less cohesive in an effort to hang on to the meager funding that their colleagues are trying to take away. So, there are political considerations, battles over turf, ideology, and much talk about self-help and responsibility that accompanies any discussion of higher education for African-Americans in the United States.

What we know from countless reports is that education program funding in prisons have been slashed or eliminated. The rationale has been that education is a luxury and not a right, and for lawbreakers receiving an education is an unnecessary expense and certainly not one that taxpayers should have to bear. What we also know is that historically the “proper” training of African-Americans (and of African-American men in particular) was to be limited to vocational trades. The above figures illustrate that for residents in 19143 this is not a satisfactory response. It may also be the case that given the de-industrialization of the city that vocational training and the accompanying jobs have disappeared. In terms of reentry, education is vitally important to helping individuals find employment that will reduce the likelihood of them returning to prison. However, it would be naïve to assume that the opportunity costs of getting an education can be ignored. As has been discussed, many ex-offenders have families and financial obligations that may make accepting low-wage employment a necessity in the short-term. Without policies to support these individuals it will be difficult to see how they can do this on their own.

In 1903, Du Bois would level a scathing critique against the accomodationist values being trumpeted by Booker T. Washington. In a nutshell, Washington asked African-Americans to defer political power, civil rights and higher education in place of industrial education and economic emancipation. Du Bois countered that the right to vote was essential to and that African Americans would not achieve economic freedom without first having political freedom. However, Du Bois’ program held less sway among the newly emancipated than did Washington’s program.

It is well documented that in many states ex-felons lose the right to vote, and in some states this is a permanent condition. Loss of voting rights is more than a consequence of incarceration it alters the body politic in significant ways by eliminating millions of people from having a voice in shaping the rules they are expected to uphold even if they can’t change them. Du Bois proposed the following,

They do not expect that the free right to vote, to enjoy civic rights, and to be educated will come in a moment; they do not expect to see the bias and prejudices of years disappear at the blast of a trumpet; but they are absolutely certain that the way for a people to gain their reasonable rights is not by voluntarily throwing them away and insisting that they do not want them; that the way for a people to gain respect is not by continually belittling and ridiculing themselves; that, on the contrary, Negroes must insist continually, in season and out of season, that voting is necessary to modern manhood, that color discrimination is barbarism, and that black boys need education as well as white boys.[32]

The disenfranchisement of ex-offenders is not new. Barring African-Americans from access to higher education is also not new. Du Bois called this situation a national crime. That was 109 years ago. Today, reentry and its associated consequences constitute a national crime.


74.74 percent of females in 19143 are not in the labor force, compared to 68.80 percent nationally. Likewise, the percentage of males in 19143 not in the labor force was 36.83 percent, compared to 28.75 nationally.

Over 15 percent of females in 19143 reported being unemployed, compared to just over 7 percent nationally. While nearly 19 percent of males in 19143 reported being unemployed, compared to less than 8 percent nationally.

No females in 19143 reported being employed in the armed forces, compared to 0.24 percent at the national level. Likewise, no males in 19143 reported being employed in the armed forces, compared to 1.17 percent nationally.

Close to 15 percent of residents in 19143 reported being employed in blue-collar jobs; While 57.62 percent reported working in white-collar jobs. When compared to figures at the national level, with more than 21 percent reporting being employed in blue collar jobs and 60.60 percent in white collar jobs.

What this reveals is that the labor force participation rate among males and females in 19143 is significantly higher than at the national level. The rate of females not in the labor force is more than twice as high than males in 19143. There are more unemployed males than females in 19143 than at the national level. In addition, the armed forces do not appear to represent a viable career path for residents, either male or female in 19143. It may very well be that the military represents a regime of authority and a space that is unwelcoming for minorities. Symbolically, participating in the military industrial complex may represent the ultimate form of “selling out” to the government. Ex-offenders are barred from serving in the military. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that in a community that has a rate of ex-offenders that enlistment in the military is low or non-existent. Given that the majority of residents in 19143 are employed in white-collar jobs it would seem fair to assume that the military would not have the draw it does among blue-collar communities. There are also far fewer blue-collar residents in 19143 when compared to national figures. More research is needed to understand the lack of appeal that the armed forces holds for residents in 19143.

At the level of communities what we can draw from the above data is that in 19143 an educated workforce makes the difference between the rate of white-collar and traditionally blue-collar jobs. Gender appears to impact the rate of employment; with far more males reporting being unemployed than females. This is significant in light of reentry because it has been documented that ex-offenders have a very difficult time securing employment post-release. It is impossible to ascertain from these figures whether ex-offenders were included in the count.

Reentry efforts that focus on employment would do well to consider the local employment picture. For example, the Philadelphia-Camden-Washington metropolitan statistical area (MSA) was one of two of the nation’s 12 largest MSA’s to experience employment losses in 2011. The public sector lost the most jobs (9,000), with mining, logging, and construction losing 4,700, and information losing 1,100 jobs. Job gains were seen in areas of education and health services, trade, transportation, utilities, leisure and hospitality.[33] Job training programs for ex-offenders should focus on the growth industries where there are jobs available. However, training will only go so far. Combating discrimination on the basis of ex-offender status will need to receive more attention. Efforts that exclude women and child-care will simply fall short of providing the necessary supports to help individuals and communities get back on their feet.

Given that females remain largely, and for the most part solely responsible for the care of children regardless of their relationship status with partners, it would be important to determine to what extent the ease or lack thereof with finding work post-release is having on this community. A number of questions come to mind, are women having an easier time securing employment post-release than men? If so, in what fields are they able to find employment? If not, what factors are contributing to their inability to secure employment? To what extent does the employment status of male partners impact family dynamics (living arrangements, child-rearing, economic situation)? Following release, how many parents are able to comply with court mandated child support and how many who fail to do so get sent back to prison?

These and many more questions emerge as relevant and important to reentry and the long-term stability of communities. Policy responses will need to take into account these factors if a goal of decarceration is to keep people from returning to prison.

Moreover, the level of income security is an important component of the reentry matrix, and one that has received little to no attention in the literature.[34]


The service industry is the largest source of employment for residents of 19143, with 27.32 percent working in this industry, compared to 17.06 percent nationally. Sales and office is the second largest source of employment for residents of this community, with 26.75 percent, compared to 25.47 percent nationally. More than 21 percent were employed in the professional and related occupations. A figure that is slightly higher than the 20.99 nationally.

8.63 percent of residents were employed in the retail trade, compared with 11.52 percent nationally.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2011, in Philadelphia, professional services and other services grew at twice the rate than the nation in the same sectors. It is evident from the above figures that residents in 19143 are keeping pace with the shifts in high demand employment sectors. It is also important to note that the disparity between retail trade in 19143 and the nation is likely owing to the fact that 19143 is a heavily residential community, and not a commercial venue.

These factors impact reentry because low-skill, low-wage retail jobs tend to be located in areas with higher commercial traffic. While this may appear to be a problem, it also may be interpreted as an opportunity. The lack of commercial properties in 19143 has allowed the community to remain largely residential and family oriented. These two factors are important for community cohesion and efficacy. Without concrete evidence we can only speculate as to the impact the release of thousands of ex-offenders will have on the long-term viability of the community. However, with most residents finding employment in high-demand sectors there are plenty of role models for young people to draw upon when making future career decisions. How can the strength of community residents in these sectors be harnessed to support reentry efforts remains to be seen, but it is worth considering.

Commuting to Work

More than 35 percent of residents relied on bus or trolley to commute to work, compared to less than 3 percent nationally. 2.49 percent of residents in 19143 report biking to work, compared to only .49 percent nationally.

43 percent of residents in 19143 relied on public transportation to get to work, compared to 5.02 percent nationally. While only 44.51 percent of residents in 19143 relied on a car, truck or van to get to work, an astonishingly 88.59 percent did so nationally.

A straightforward interpretation of these figures tells us that 19143 residents rely heavily on public transportation compared to national figures. These figures are also an indication of the accessibility to public transportation that is available in 19143. Currently there are nine rail lines including, regional, subway and trolley service that connect 19143 with various locations in Montgomery County, Upper Darby, and Center City Philadelphia. Bus routes are also easily accessible.

Another way to interpret these figures is to consider the environmental implications of using mass transit versus driving. Cobbs Creek is an environmentally friendly community. Cobbs Creek connects with the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers and the Heinz Environmental Refuge facility in Tinicum Township. In addition, Cobbs Creek has a vast system of hiking and biking trails, and large amounts of green space that is available to residents for recreation and educational purposes. This largely working class community has depended on public transportation since the Market-Frankford Elevated Train was completed in the early part of the twentieth century. Giving residents an affordable way to reach points of interest and employment in Upper Darby and Center City Philadelphia.

In light of reentry commuting to work is an important factor. The ability to get and maintain employment is a challenge for ex-offenders. Location of employment, as well as, the location of social services and probation and parole offices needs to be accessible to ex-offenders. The costs of commuting also need to be considered an important part of the reentry matrix. Reentry programs that are located in the core of cities, away from the individuals and communities that need them most are not going to be able to meet the demand of decarceration. Policy efforts will need to focus more attention on communities where clustering and churning have already been identified.


The data for this section was obtained using the University of Pennsylvania’s Cartographic Modeling Lab (CML) Crime Base. Unless otherwise stated all of the statistics used were derived from CML. Data were only available as late as 2006 and as early as 1999. For comparison purposes Cobbs Creek (19143) a predominantly African American community was compared to Frankford (19124) a predominantly white community.

In 2006 the number of All Serious (Part 1) Incidents Against Persons  (Robbery, Aggravated Assault) for Cobbs Creek  (19143) was 1,144 compared to Frankford (19124) with 1,388. While the average over an eight-year period was slightly higher for Cobbs Creek at 1,019, the average number over the same eight-year period in Frankford was 954.

The number of All Serious (Part 1) Property Incidents (Burglary, Theft, Auto Theft) for Cobbs Creek was 3,201 compared to Frankford with 3,555. In 2006, 300 Series offenses which include robberies with and without guns were lower in Cobbs Creek than in Frankford. Robberies with guns in Cobbs Creek numbered 286; While in Frankford they numbered 361. Robberies without guns in Cobbs Creek numbered 229; While in Frankford they numbered 401.

There is little variation between Cobbs Creek and Frankford when comparing aggravated assaults with and without guns. In 2006, the number of aggravated assaults with guns in Cobbs Creek was 248 compared to 211 in Frankford. The number of aggravated assaults without guns in Cobbs Creek that same year was 381, compared to Frankford with 415.

500 Series offenses which include residential and commercial burglaries revealed little difference between the two communities. In 2006, residential burglaries in Cobbs Creek numbered 482, compared to 459 in Frankford. Commercial burglaries numbered 106 in Cobbs Creek, compared to 140 in Frankford.

600 Series offenses which include theft from auto, purse snatchings to bicycle theft were lower across the board in Cobbs Creek than in Frankford with the exception of theft from autos which numbered 782 in Cobbs Creek compared to 527 in Frankford. Bicycle thefts numbered 45 in both Cobbs Creek and Frankford in 2006.

In 2006, auto thefts (700 Series) were lower in Cobbs Creek, 589, compared to Frankford with 725.

In nearly every other category for which data was available in 2006, the numbers were lower in Cobbs Creek than in Frankford. For example, assaults at school numbered 65 in Cobbs Creek and 131 in Frankford. There were 277 fraud, bad checks, cons (1100 Series) in Cobbs Creek and 395 in Frankford. Vandalism and criminal mischief numbered 1,145 in Cobbs Creek and 1,201 in Frankford. Graffiti numbered at 24 in Cobbs Creek compared with 43 in Frankford.

Similarly, the number of weapons violations, prostitution, all narcotics arrests, and narcotics sales, manufacturing and delivery was higher in Frankford than in Cobbs Creek.

Table 1

Cobbs Creek Frankford
Weapons Violations 129 142
Prostitution 35 188
All Narcotics Arrests 594 627
Narcotics Sales/Manufacturing/Delivery 265 294
Narcotics Possession 329 333

Cobbs Creek had a higher number of incidents under public drunkenness (23) compared to Frankford with 3. The number of false calls to the police was higher in Cobbs Creek than in Frankford, 21 and 5 respectively. In terms of other incidents Frankford had significantly higher numbers than Cobbs Creek. The chart below illustrates the difference.

Table 2

Cobbs Creek Frankford
Curfew Violations 1,120 1,543
Truancy 856 2,000
Minor Disturbances 3,431 4,156
Missing Persons 416 438
All Auto Accidents 1,852 3,032

What these figures reveal is significant. The way that African American communities are represented is flawed, but it presupposes and assumes that all African American communities are a problem. When we look at serious offenses the predominantly white community of Frankford had higher numbers across the board, but where variation did exist it was slight. The impression one gets, however, is that African-American communities are full of criminals, while the numbers in this example bear witness to a radically different picture it is difficult to persuade policy makers that traditional representations may be flawed. Moreover, it must be made clear that Cobbs Creek may be an extraordinary example, but with little community-level analysis of this sort, we cannot make assumptions about other communities.

One statistic that I found enlightening was for domestic abuse. Across the board, from 1999 to 2006, domestic abuse was higher in Cobbs Creek than in Frankford averaging to 4,842 for Cobbs Creek over that eight-year period, and 2,904 in Frankford. It is difficult to say why the number of domestic abuse cases are higher in Cobbs Creek, but one reason may be that there could be underreporting of incidents in Frankford. However, speculation of this sort is unwise without a more thorough study that looks at this issue specifically.

When considering the broad social impact of these statistics it is important to take into account that the total population of 19143 in 2006 was 72,371, and of that number, children (persons under 18), accounted for 20,661 of the population. What this suggests is that the community is struggling in many ways, and that the children living there bear the brunt of flawed, if not misguided, policies. In addition, the future prospects for children who grow up in violent situations are diminished, this is further exacerbated by the fact that at least one parents or family member has been to prison, making it very likely that the cycle will continue through the next generation.

Another statistic that drew my attention has to do with parole and probation violations, which were significantly higher in Cobbs Creek (72) in 2006, compared to 51 in Frankford. What this reveals is that even though there are more violent crimes being committed in Frankford, it is Cobbs Creek that is depicted as the dangerous community. In addition, this figure also tells us that more people in Cobbs Creek, a community already identified as having a high rate of returning ex-offenders, may be returning to prison due to a parole or probation violation than for a new offense. In Frankford, the opposite is true. More people are committing new crimes, and more violent crimes than in Cobbs Creek. However, there is not a single policy document that I came across that bothered to consider what was happening at the level of communities identified as having large numbers of churners.

Four general conclusions can be outlined based on the analysis of the data, and that serve to summarize this chapter:

  1. 19143 is an extraordinary, and in many ways a perfect example of a community that is dealing with ex-offender reentry. According to most indicators, 19143, is a stable community. Nevertheless, clustering and churning are happening in this community. This community complicates any argument about reentry because what we know about communities with large numbers of ex-offenders does not appear to be happening in 19143. This is an indication that something else is going on in 19143 that is producing the problem with clustering and churning. Moreover, 19143 is a useful example because it illustrates that the system is producing the conditions whereby reentry is concentrated in this community. Generalizations drawn from this example need to be carefully calibrated before they can be applied to other communities. In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to reentry, and thinking that there is will lead to much waste and misunderstanding.
  2. The data suggests that race is a conditioning factor in reentry in communities. The implicit assumption that is present in many studies on ex-offender reentry, is that it amounts to a problem of African-American crime, and that only African American communities are impacted by the return of ex-offenders. The Cnaan and Frazier study identified nine communities of which only four were predominantly African American (Cobbs Creek/Kingsessing both fall within 19143); Strawberry Mansion; Tioga; and North Central). Three neighborhoods were mostly white (Frankford; Port Richmond; and Point Breeze), and one was predominantly Hispanic (Fairhill). The point is not to criticize Cnaan and Frazier. Their research is important, and serves its intended purpose. The issue here is to illustrate how the problem with reentry is seldom discussed or presented as a problem within predominantly white or Hispanic communities, even when these communities have exhibited clustering and churning. Two additional points need to be made with regard to race and the example of 19143. One, isolating the effects of reentry was important because this community does not have many of the same demographic problems that have been shown to be present in communities where clustering and churning are present. Two, statistically there are racializing factors, but it remains unclear what these factors are really doing to the internal texture of this community. More importantly, in order to understand these to points it was not necessary to do this in comparison to other communities, but a comparative study would be useful.
  3. The familiar descriptions that appear in many policy studies, and that characterize ex-offenders as individuals of dubious character and moral deficit, and that describe the communities where they live as bad lands, tells us very little about how reentry shapes communities, and these descriptions don’t apply to 19143 in significant ways. What this illustrates is that the perception in policy circles, which is mirrored in public opinion, is that crime and by extension reentry is solely or largely an African-American problem. The focus on African-American communities as the source of the problem contributes to the negative stereotype of African Americans as rule breakers, and of communities where there are numerically more African Americans as repositories of criminal activity that must be dealt with through legal forms of control.
  4. Approaching the study of communities from a Du Boisian perspective yields a number of findings that can be empirically illustrated, analyzed, presented, and used as the basis for decision-making and future studies. The idea that predominantly African American communities are the problem is limiting, dated, and wrong. Social stability as illustrated by household type and homeownership, are very much present in Cobbs Creek/19143. This challenges the inaccurate perception and dominant tropes that continue to permeate even the most noble and well-intentioned research of the Black community as socially disorganized and made up of transients.

In addition, segregation is not limited to geography. The walls of the prison have been extended to the community by way of reentry. Clustering and churning are symptoms of racialized policies that have long masqueraded as race neutral.

It is not by choice that ex-offenders concentrate in large numbers in a few communities, but by design. Restrictive housing policies, lack of employment opportunities in the legal economy, and parole and probation force ex-offenders to live in some communities while effectively diminishing, denying and often barring them from ever living or moving to others, let alone having the opportunity to experience social and economic mobility. Moreover, the aggregation of individuals for whom the American Dream is out of reach produces communities that are bound by necessity and custom and practice to construct their own powerful mythologies that may not be in keeping with those of the broader society. There is little incentive to conform to middle-class standards including obeying the law, if one is in effect excluded from the processes of democracy, and one’s lived experience is incompatible with the ideals of the society at large.

In light of the evidence presented in this section it is clear that much more research needs to be done. However, research alone will not ameliorate the issues associated with reentry. Policy reforms and initiatives must be formulated that take account of the range of factors in the reentry matrix. Knee-jerk policy responses will do little in the wake of decarceration to support individuals and the communities they call home.

[1] Evening Bulletin Library (November, 28, 1972), Urban Archives, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.

[2] Murray Dublin, On Ice: Cobbs Creek Keeps Asking for Its Own Skating Rink. May 24, 1979. Philadelphia Inquirer.

[3] Profile of General Population and Housing Characteristics 2010, 2010 Demographic Profile Data. U.S. Census Bureau.

[4] Diane Lim Rogers, Eric Toder, Landon Jones. Economic Consequences of an Aging Population. September 1, 2000. Urban Institute. Available online:

[5] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1899.

[6] Rakesh Kochhar, In Two Years of Economic Recovery, Women Lost Jobs, Men Found Them. Pew Research Center Publications. July 6, 2011.

[7] Kochhar, In Two Years of Economic Recovery, Women Lost Jobs, Men Found Them.

[8] Cnaan and Frazier, pp. 2

[9] Cnaan and Frazier, pp. 2

[10] Women in Prison Fact Sheet, Women in Prison Project

[11] Women in Prison Fact Sheet, Women in Prison Project

[12] Women in Prison Fact Sheet, Women in Prison Project

[13] Women in Prison Fact Sheet, Women in Prison Project. Correctional Association of New York. 2090 Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, Suite 200, New York, NY 10027.

[14] Cnaan and Frazier, pp. 7.

[15] Du Bois, pp. 71

[16] See: The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Friedrich Engels in Robert C. Tucker, The Marx-Engels Reader. Second Edition. W.W. Norton & Company. New York, 1978.

[17] Du Bois, pp. 72.

[18] The 2011 HHS Poverty Guidelines: One Version of the U.S. Federal Poverty Measure. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

[19] Some parolees receive surprise visits from their parole officers. One needs a steady address where they can be reliably found. Those who fail to be at home when the officer visits will likely receive a warning the first time. Parolees who fail to be physically present when the PO shows up in their documented place of residence will more than likely receive a technical violation which may mean additional fines, more probation, and in some cases going back to prison.

[21] Tom MacDonald, Space Heater Deaths Up In Philadelphia, December 20, 2010.

[23] Karen Black, Effectively Preserving Philadelphia’s Workforce Housing Stock. Commonwealth Housing Development Corporation, Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, NeighborhoodsNow, Penrose Service Company, Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, Women’s Community Revitalization Project.

[24] According to Black’s report, “1 out of 8 Philadelphia homeowners cannot afford to make needed repairs to their homes.”

[25] Black, Effectively Preserving Philadelphia’s Workforce Housing Stock.

[26] Black, Effectively Preserving Philadelphia’s Workforce Housing Stock.

[27] Rachel Simmons Schade, Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual: A Practical Guide for Homeowners. National Trust for Historic Preservation, office of Housing and Community Development, Philadelphia City Planning Commission.

[28] Jeffrey Allegretti and Adam Blackburn, Philadelphia Task Force on Weatherization and the Workforce, Final Report. Innova, April 2010.

[29] Allegretti and Blackburn, pp. 6.

[30] Allegretti and Blackburn, pp. 7.

[31] According to Karen Black the City of Philadelphia has a surplus of 67,000 units, “most of which are in very poor condition or obsolete.” Pp. 3

[32] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk. Enriched Classic. Simon & Schuster, Inc. N.Y. 2005.

[33] Philadelphia Area Employment-November 2011: Local Employment Nearly Unchanged Over-the-Year. News Release. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Mid-Atlantic Information Office. January 4, 2012.

[34] According to the International Labor Organization, income security is defined as “the level of income (absolute and relative to needs), assurance of receipt, expectation of income adequacy now and improvement or deterioration in the future, both during a person’s working life and in old age or disability retirement. Income security is about actual, perceived and expected income.”


Public Policy and the Study of Problems: Or Why I Refused to Follow the Conventional Wisdom

*This post originally appeared on one of Dr. Wilson’s other blogs on August 19, 2013 under a similar title.

This post evolved out of a Twitter conversation on the nature of public policy programs and the privileging of quantitative approaches in public policy analysis. My recently completed dissertation draws upon Du Bois’s insights (which are not fully understood or applied in mainstream public policy circles) but which offer us a way to understand and rethink the existing negative effects of reentry policies on communities, and gives us a framework for deconstructing existing carceral and reentry conditions and policies by addressing the affective (qualitative) dimensions of the problem.


I argue that the policy literature fails to question the legitimacy of reentry because the conventional wisdom, pervasive in quantitative studies of the problem, assumes that reentry is an issue with “ex-offenders,” rather than a  problem with a historically racialized criminal justice system, and the host of institutions that contribute to the problem of mass incarceration and its offshoots. Moreover, I contend that the policies that shape, inform, and extend the prison walls, through reentry and its varied schemes (parole, probation, work-release, etc.) appear to be designed to permanently disable individuals and destabilize communities where large numbers of formerly incarcerated individuals are geographically concentrated. In addition, I attempt to illustrate that current efforts to reform the system fail to address the problem and may even exacerbate it. This last point should not be taken to mean that we do nothing. On the contrary, we need immediate reform, and more accurately we need to conceive of ways to abolish the current system of mass incarceration including reentry.


Why I focused on communities?


1. Communities and Racialized Policies


Communities are the physical space where the state carries out some of its most racialized policies through the mechanisms of surveillance and group control under the supervision of correctional authorities and the police. The activity of reentry places communities in receivership. That is, reentry gives the criminal justice system perpetual custodial responsibility over individuals and communities.


2. Labeling Communities, Racial Fantasies, and Failure to Address Structural Conditions


Historically, communities that are categorized as African-American communities have served as negative examples in both public policy circles and in the social sciences. The labeling of some communities has served as a convenient short-hand that has been used to advance a narrow political agenda that finds resonance in the rhetoric of black criminality. In addition, racial mythologies and racial fantasies about “the black community” have made it easier for some policy makers to blame communities for their problems without ever having to address or acknowledge the plethora of factors that structure and limit opportunities, but also perpetuate poverty and inequality.


3. The Role of Communities in Reentry


Communities are the location from which individuals are removed from and returned to in aggregate. Communities represent a logical conceptual space from which to investigate reentry. From the perspective of public policy, it is important that we develop a better understanding of the role of communities in supporting the transition of individuals returning from prison because if communities are unable or unwilling to assist in the reintegration of the more than seven million individuals currently under the control of correctional authorities it is unlikely that we will see a drastic reduction in the size of the prison system any time soon.


4. Social Reform and Social Action and the Need for Qualitative Analysis of Public Policy Issues


From the perspective of social reform and social action the relationship between communities and individuals returning from prison is one that forces an interrogation of the institutional arrangements that prohibit or undermine efforts at collective political organization that stand outside of mainstream and currently sanctioned approaches.


From a methodological perspective the way that we study the problem of reentry in communities is important because the tendency has been to emphasize empirical approaches, and to devalue or ignore the affective dimensions of race, racism, and racialized policies or to attempt to retro-fit affective dimensions into quantitative methods as a way to simplify and dehistoricize America’s problem with race.


Moreover, because the spatial concentration of reentry occurs in communities that are predominantly African American, and because that designation is contested and problematic, it is important to address the historical meaning of being treated as a “problem,” and the consequences that emerge from the un-interrogated assumptions ascribed to different groups that are treated as problematic. Therefore, my study focused on the qualitative dimensions of the problem and attempted to develop an understanding of the relationship between reentry and communities that attends to seemingly disparate elements within a coherent Du Boisian framework.


Philosophical Underpinnings of a Du Boisian Framework


I was drawn to the work of Du Bois for many reasons. However, it was Du Bois’s philosophical commitment to the study of racialized subjects, and to the question of their humanity in a racist world that made the most sense to me given my own research interests. By attending to these two concerns, it became clear that it was possible to develop an analysis of communities that have been historically dehuminized without letting go of the historical reality in order to develop a coherent analysis of the current problem of reentry.


Du Bois’s claim that the defining problem of the twentieth century was race challenged long-held views that the study of racialized subjects was not a worthy endeavor. Du Bois also challenged the incorrect assumptions about racialized subjects as unimportant by developing an epistemology toward the study of racialized subjects and problems. For Du Bois the issue was that African Americans were seen as problems, and that any understanding that we might derive from rigorously studying a social group that was viewed as a problem would fail to accurately describe the group in any meaningful way because it denied the group’s humanity.


The conventional wisdom was to use the precepts of the natural sciences for the study of African Americans because as far as some researchers were concerned that was the proper lens through which to study non-white social groups. Du Bois’s epistemology undermined the investment in scientific racism because it dealt with the existential question of what it means to be human. The question of what it means to be human forced a critical engagement with the existential condition of social groups that the dominant sought to treat as sub-human and in-human. For Du Bois the theoretical commitments of scientific racism were incorrect. People were not their problems, and studying them as such meant drawing conclusions that were inherently flawed. Moreover, any remedies that one might apply to dealing with problems would also be flawed.


Du Bois’s epistemology did two things. First, it separated people from their problems. Second, it asserted the humanity of African Americans as social beings that have every right to contest their treatment in a racist society. These two moves set up an important philosophical premise for the study of racialized subjects that is further enhanced by Du Bois’s phenomenology. I will address this in a future post.


A Du Boisian Framework for the Study of Reentry in Communities


The elements of a Du Boisian Framework used in my research includes the study of problems, the study of race, the study of crime, the study of communities, and the study of public policy.


First, within this framework  the study of human problems assumes that there is a relationship between conditions and actions. In other words, current conditions are historically based, and this history affects the actions of the group including their ability to respond to and deal with structural problems.


Second, this framework establishes that the study of racialized subjects includes a range of problems that are interrelated. For example, when we look at the problem of reentry using a Du Boisian framework, we see that reentry is not a problem with individuals, but it is a problem that is individualized in order to assert moral judgments upon a group. As a result of such judgments it becomes easier to justify pahologizing the group for things over which it does not have control.


Third, Du Bois’s study of crime in African American communities is particularly relevant for understanding ex-offender reentry in communities today. This element of the framework establishes the systemic and historical link between slavery and reentry with the former emerging as a form of oppression that was premised on racist ideologies and patterns of wealth creation that benefited whites and disadvantaged African Americans. Thus, reentry can be understood as having evolved out of a system of oppression that extends a compendium of punishments that disproportionately impact African Americans, but that are obscured through mechanisms that have successfully blamed individuals for their condition without addressing the role of the institutions (courts, education, economy, police) that create and enforce racially biased policies. A Du Boisian framework takes stock of these issues by forcing the analyst to consider the ways in which the courts are rigged, the ways that states’ are complicit in creating a permanent criminal class through policy choices, the disproportionate representation of non-whites and the poor in the criminal justice system, and the impact that private capital has over individuals in prison and over the policy machine.


Fourth, Du Bois’s research on communities provides an important touchstone on which to tease out contemporary issues in communities, such as reentry. This framework requires that the analyst deal with joblessness, homelessness, drug addiction, crime, education, access to health-care, family support, and the role of the police in communities. Du Bois documented these problems in his study of The Philadelphia Negro (1896), and while there has been progress since that time, these problems remain part of daily life in some communities. Reentry introduces another problem into the mix that is intertwined with and complicated by all of the issues outlined above. A Du Boisian framework gives us a way to study these problems holistically rather than in a piecemeal or fragmented fashion.


Fifth, a Du Boisian framework is an activist framework in the sense that it aims to use social science research for social reform. Because reentry is a public policy issue, the use of a Du Boisian framework in reentry is a clear declaration that the current state of affairs is unacceptable and that change is needed, but also possible through a critical analysis of public policy.


Refusing to Follow the Conventional Wisdom Comes at a Costs


I was not surprised by the push-back that I received when I first proposed to study reentry or when I decided that I was going to use Du Bois, and I don’t want to overstate the significance of my own work or imply in any way that it is on par with that of Du Bois. I know better. However, I do think that my work was treated as illegitimate and uncritical because of my choice to use a social theorist of color rather than the more esteemed European or Euro-centric social scientists that my advisers were more comfortable and familiar with. I also don’t think that my situation was particularly unique or that it would have been much different had I chosen to attend a different institution. It seems to be the case that many grad students enter programs because they have the sense that they can engage in “cutting edge” research and push ideas that challenge current thinking. It also seems to be the case that many grad students are sadly disappointed by what they find when the novelty of grad school has worn off and the sense that we are in full-on “survival-of-the-fittest” mode sets in. It is also possible that I may be projecting.


The fact that I was a loud-mouth (self-identified and proud of it), and that I refused to change topics or my methodological approach (perhaps not wise in terms of time to completion) just to satisfy the narrow interests of a small group (advisors and committee members that for one reason or another were asked to take leave from my committee) made the path to completing my research excessively long and difficult, but ultimately extremely satisfying. It was satisfying because in the end, I was asked by my dissertation chair to include those things in my analysis that were deemed objectionable, contentious, provocative or irrelevant by previous committee members. It was satisfying because in the end, after many years of fighting a battle over whether I could use Du Bois in my work, my biggest champion in this fight was someone with whom I’d had many disagreements and a few shouting matches with over the years. It was satisfying because in the end, I felt a small (really big) personal victory over the forces that have anointed Euro-centric thought (including positivism, and quantitative approaches) as the only way to do public policy analysis. It was satisfying because in the end, even if nobody ever reads what I wrote, I know that my research and the completion of the degree symbolize a direct challenge to racial white supremacy, and while that may not matter to some it matters to me.


Selected bibliography: