ESG Investing

Regional Spotlight: Philadelphia Channels ESG Initiatives to Address Disparities


The greater Philadelphia area claims as rich a history as many great cities in the world. At the same time, the City of Brotherly Love represents the “poorest” of large cities in the US, according to the US Census Bureau—23% of residents lived in poverty in 2019.

Add to this a devasting opioid epidemic, a large prison population, and ongoing racial disparities, and the city and region alike show the difference that investors focused on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues can make through local investments in these issues.

Combatting the Opioid crisis

Already endemic before COVID-19, drug overdoses rose nearly 30% nationally during the pandemic. Philadelphia reported the deaths of 1,214 people due to unintentional overdoses in 2020—up 9% and 6% from 2018 and 2019, respectively. A deeper dive into those numbers shows that Black Philadelphians suffered disproportionately from opioid use, with an increase in fatal overdoses of more than 50% in 2020.

Much of the opioid epidemic centers on the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, referred to as “the largest open-air drug market on the East Coast.” The city established the Kensington Community Resilience Fund in April 2021 to address the community impacts of the opioid crisis in Kensington. A public-private-community partnership, the fund issued its first round of funding in July and awarded a total of $200,000 to 20 grassroots organizations.

Greater Philadelphia’s poverty, drug and incarceration concerns are underpinned by deep-rooted racial disparities in the community.

Reducing Incarceration Rates

Despite recent reductions in prison and jail populations, the greater Philadelphia area still has the highest incarceration rate of any large jurisdiction in the country. Racial and ethnic disparities also persist among those incarcerated.

Activists have stepped up to help with the De-Carceration Fund, investing in companies and organizations that help incarcerated people return to society and reduce recidivism. For example, the fund was among three donors of $2 million in seed funding to Uptrust, which helps connect formerly incarcerated people to the resources they need to avoid technical violations that could lead to recidivism.

Fighting Racial Inequality

Greater Philadelphia’s poverty, drug, and incarceration concerns are underpinned by deep-rooted racial disparities in the community. Philadelphia organizations are working to tackle these racial disparities in a variety of ways, from employment opportunities to wealth creation.

ImpactPHL connects people with opportunities such as its Enterprise Center, which advocates for “innovation in and expansion of equity capital to invest in high-potential and high-growth local enterprises.” According to ImpactPHL Executive Director Cory Donovan, Black-owned businesses often face situations where they “can get debt capital but then find themselves servicing the debt, not re-investing their capital.” The Enterprise Center provides support via loans and equity investments to minority and women entrepreneurs.

Concerned that residents may miss out on development opportunities because they lack the funds to purchase real estate assets in the community, The Collective—a Black-owned, -operated, and -led group made up of leaders from disinvested neighborhoods—”looks for and vets long-standing, stable projects that create value in marginalized Philadelphia neighborhoods, based on the needs and desires of residents,” Donovan says.

Poverty, drug use, incarceration, and racial disparities are often intertwined, making it difficult to pinpoint what single issue a given initiative impacts. In turn, Philadelphia brings opportunities to hit upon several avenues for progress at once through local investments that directly impact pressing issues—particularly investing through a racial equity lens and pushing for racial equity in the innovation economy.

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