Jim Kenney has served as mayor of Philadelphia since 2016. Throughout his tenure, he has been a dedicated advocate for children, youth, and their families. One of the hallmarks of his time in office has been the passage of the Philadelphia Beverage Tax, which has provided approximately $171 million to support quality pre-K programs for 3- and 4-year-olds and $26 million to support community schools in the city since the tax’s inception in 2016. Philadelphia is one of the few cities in the country to levy this type of tax.

Children’s Funding Project CEO Elizabeth Gaines recently spoke with Mayor Kenney about the campaign to secure the beverage tax in Philadelphia, the successes of the programs it supports, and Mayor Kenney’s advice for other local leaders looking for innovative ways to fund programs for children and youth. You can watch the full video interview and read an edited version of their conversation below.



Gaines: You and your city received a lot of attention at the time—both good and bad—about doing this. I would love to hear a retrospective—now 6 years on—of how it has all gone, how you made some of those tough decisions, and how it’s benefitted children and families in the city. Let’s start by having you talk about why you did it.

Mayor Kenney: When we started the campaign in 2015, we ran on a pro-education platform, pre-K, early childhood education. We also ran on a platform of the community school model and our Rebuild program, which was also funded by the beverage tax to rebuild our recreation centers, libraries, and parks—those that hadn’t seen much love and attention in quite some time. A lot of those recreation facilities are in neighborhoods that are struggling with poverty and education to begin with, so this was a holistic way of approaching poverty through education, through special help at the school-base level for food, clothing, and medical care. It also was trying to give high-quality recreation space to kids who don’t see a lot of positivity in their lives. The theory was, if you don’t have a pre-K experience, you’re less likely to do as well in school. If your school experience is subpar and you don’t have enough support at home or in the community, there’s very little hope you have growing up that things will be any different.

I think that the most important thing any government can do—and I wish the U.S. government and the state government here in Pennsylvania would do it—is provide a thorough education for people. The more educated you are the less likely you are to be in poverty, the less likely you are to have an addiction, the less likely you are to be involved in the criminal justice system. I think we really missed the boat as s country by not having comprehensive, free, university education available to all its citizens. If you look at countries like Canada, places in Europe, and even in China, you can go to college for free. Here you have to go into debt for half a million dollars and stay in debt most of your adult life. It’s kind of crazy.

We decided to pursue the beverage tax, which had been pursued in past administrations. But past administrations viewed it as a health issue and people rejected others telling them what they were going to drink or eat. But when we tied revenue from the tax to these programs specifically, people began to understand that it wasn’t just coming out of their pocket, they had to make a choice to buy a sweetened beverage. It wasn’t like a real estate tax increase or wage tax increase or business tax increase. It was something you chose to do or not to do. If you chose not to do it, you would probably be healthier for it. If you chose to do it, then you were going to support these programs which have turned out to be really terrific.

The first couple of years were rocky because when you talk about Big Soda, which is like Big Tobacco or Big Pharma, they have a lot of money and tied us up for two years in court. They conducted a negative campaign in the media and television and print to turn people against voting for it, number one. Then secondly, they tied us up in the court where we couldn’t spend the full amount of money for two years. So, we were a little bit behind. Right now, we have about 13,000 students that have been through this pre-K. We’re targeting by the end of my term, which is January 2024, that 15,000 kids will be affected by it. The programs will grow from 2,000 seats a year to 4,300 seats a year. We have 26 schools that are now in a community school model and we’re in the process of either completing or designing 30 recreational facilities throughout the city. They are Class A rec centers with a gymnasium and athletic fields or small parks, green spaces, and the like. We want to create an environment in the community where everybody is treated equitably. In our Rebuild program we have kids who play organized sports like football who play kids in the suburbs. They go out on the bus to the suburban football field that is all manicured with concession stands and locker rooms. Our kids are playing in a dust bowl in North Philly or South Philly somewhere. We’re correcting as much as we can with the revenue we have.

Gaines: So many mayors are coming to us saying, “we want to do something now, particularly when it comes to pre-K.” What would you say to them about how to approach philanthropy and advocates in their cities to build the coalition to get something like this done?

Mayor Kenney: Have the courage to introduce the tax and start building your coalitions. Big Soda had every lobbyist in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania on the payroll trying to beat this down. Our lobbyists were preschool moms and dads, park advocates, library advocates. It didn’t matter what the soda lobbyists were saying to them because they knew what they were going to get out of this program. We passed the beverage tax in 2016 by 14-3 on our 17-member council. That was more lopsided in favor of it than I expected. I expected a 9-8 split and I thought we’d have to fight a veto or override.

The other thing they [advocates] have to explain is it’s not just the educational aspects of it. It’s not only about helping a kid get a leg up on their studies for life. We created over 600 jobs in the early education space with good salaries for that industry. I also learned, personally, from a mom who came up to me on the street that said she had two kids in pre-K and thanked me for the program. She said she just got a job driving the bus for SEPTA, our regional transportation agency. Now she has two children in school getting a great start to their education and a mom who had to stay home can now improve their financial situation by having a full-time job. I didn’t realize that that would be another positive fallout from [the program].

Gaines: So, to the argument that this isn’t good for business or that this will hurt jobs, these are also jobs that benefit kids and families.

Mayor Kenney: Big supermarkets use soda as a loss leader. They give it away for the most part to get people into the store. Pepsi and Coke were complaining that they would have to lay off workers. There are ads every week talking about openings there.

I think Coke argued that we shouldn’t pass the tax, the same year they netted $5 billion in profit. I’m happy for them and glad that they’re successful but … you can pass on the tax. We didn’t set a tax on you, it’s a tax on the person who wants to buy the two-liter bottle of soda. I felt it was well worth it. It’s been shown, Drexel University just did a study that showed the equitable nature of the tax. The other thing they were throwing out there was that this is a tax on poor people because poor people drink a lot of soda, which I think is pretty biased to say. It worked out well. I think it is doable for other jurisdictions to do this. We had a lot of intense opposition because we are in an area with bottling companies and one Teamster local [union] represented all those drivers and that’s where the opposition came from, but if you’re in an area that doesn’t have bottling plants, I don’t think it’s that hard.

Gaines: I like to tell people that you took one for the team when it comes to thinking about legal and political ramifications of doing this. No one is crazy about a new tax on anything, but when you weigh the pros and the cons in being able to invest in all the kinds of things you’re able to do now through that tax, the evidence is now there that this is a worthwhile thing.

Mayor Kenney: We also had prominent members of the clergy that were for the tax. Pastor Hall, who is a well-known pastor in a large church in Philadelphia, did commercials for us talking about how the tax is for the kids and don’t worry about the extra 10 or 20 cents you’re spending on a big bottle of sugar.

Gaines: I want to thank you again for sharing your experiences with us today. We are continuing to follow your amazing work that’s going on there. That’s all we have time for.

Mayor Kenney: If you’re ever having a bad day and want to uplift your day, go visit a pre-K. A lot of fun.

Gaines: Thanks so much Mayor Kenney. To learn more about how communities like Philadelphia are funding their early childhood programs in creative ways, visit our website at childrensfundingproject.org. Thanks so much for watching.