The Pew Charitable Trusts recently released its annual State of the City report. It’s an attractive, easy-to read shapshot of our city and region. Having a report like this is helpful for measuring progress and comparing the city to its peers, and Philadelphia is lucky to have an organization with deep pockets willing to assemble it.
However, studying the snapshot gives us some serious reasons for pause. The story is not a clear-cut tale of prosperity and growth, or of poverty and decline. Instead it is a complex story of seemingly contradictory indicators of a growing city on the move, but one that still faces challenges more daunting than many comparison cities.
First the good news. Philadelphia is growing, gaining population steadily each year. Our regional economy is the seventh largest in the nation, with its metro area’s GDP outpacing San Francisco, Boston, and Atlanta. Philadelphia’s median household income has increased between 2006 and 2011. Our cost of living in Philly is now higher than that of Chicago.
The region’s average number of tourists per year has risen 37 percent over the last decade. Both the number of major crimes and violent crimes have dropped in the past decade. Home sales are increasing in 2012, and the annual number of residential building permits issued is back at pre-recession levels. Between 2010 and 2012, the city saw an 18 percent increase in median home prices, overall.
At the same time, however, at $34,207 Philadelphia’s median income is below Baltimore and Pittsburgh. There is a bigger difference in median income between Philadelphia and Chicago than there is between Philadelphia and Detroit. With unemployment, the outlook is even bleaker. Philadelphia’s rate of 10.7 in 2012 was higher than every comparison city except Detroit. Philadelphia ranks way below both the national average and the big-city average for public school students proficient in reading and math. Only 13 percent of public schools make “adequate yearly progress,” and just 23.6 percent of Philadelphians are college graduates, ranking us below Phoenix, Baltimore, Houston, and Pittsburgh.
Perhaps most distressing is that Philadelphia’s poverty rate saw an 86 percent increase between 2004 and 2011. At 28.4 percent our poverty rate is now higher than those in Baltimore, Houston, and Pittsburgh. To quote the Pew study: “Among the nation’s 25 largest cities, only Detroit has a higher poverty rate than Philadelphia.”
In 2007 the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board put out a report titled “A Tale of Two Cities,” explaining, “There are two Philadelphias growing further and further apart. One is
prospering in the new economy; the other is falling behind. The promise of our future can only be realized if Philadelphia moves forward together.” This statement perhaps holds even truer today, six years later.
There are many reasons to be excited about Philadelphia. Over the past decade I have seen an incredible transformation of Center City and many surrounding neighborhoods. Philly is decidedly now a place where people want to live, competitive with other Northeast destination cities (approximately 25,000 people moved from New York to Philadelphia between 2006 and 2012). However, as a whole, it is clear that no matter how many great restaurants pop up with name chefs, our city will never be truly prosperous and competitive with statistics like those in the Pew report.
Those of us who study statistics know that almost everything goes back to poverty. Crime, public health, education have all been linked to poverty, and our poverty rate is second only to Detroit amongst America’s largest cities. To anyone who cares about Philadelphia’s future, our number one goal needs to be working to reduce the city’s poverty rate, building wealth and equity for those currently lacking.
Certainly it is not easy (there are generations of approaches and literature on the topic), but our city’s positive trends give Philadelphia a new, unprecedented, opportunity. When a city is bleeding population, fighting to save its downtown core, it is very hard to combat citywide poverty. But that’s not us anymore. We need to focus on the trends that show a city of stability and growth, and determine how to capitalize on those assets in struggling neighborhoods and communities. Left unchecked we will continue to be two Philadelphias, but if we intelligently seize the opportunities afforded by our recent growth trends, Philadelphia may come to achieve its true potential.