Those Irrepressibly Sunny Philadelphians

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Philadelphians harbor deep concerns about jobs, somewhat diminished fears of crime, and a generally upbeat view of the city's future. In the Philadelphia Research Initiative's second annual benchmark poll, those attitudes are nearly universal citywide.

But the survey also reveals the distinct perspectives of three key groups of Philadelphians: newcomers, young people, and African Americans. Their viewpoints offer both opportunities and challenges for city leaders.

First, let's look at the newcomers, defined as people who have lived in the city for no more than 10 years. Representing about 13 percent of the adult population, the new arrivals are remarkably positive about Philadelphia. Unburdened by the disappointments of the past, they see the glass as half-full, or even more so.

Compared with their neighbors, the newcomers are more content with the status quo and more pleased with the performance of Mayor Nutter. Fifty-one percent think the city is headed in the right direction, while only 22 percent believe it's on the wrong track - the rosiest outlook of any group.

In addition, the newcomers are decidedly upbeat about what the days ahead might hold for Philadelphia. Fully 65 percent say the city will be a better place to live five years from now.

Then there are the young people, defined in the poll as 18 to 34 years old, and amounting to about one-third of the adult population. They're a little less satisfied than other Philadelphians with things as they are, and a little less sanguine about what's to come.

Most striking is the bleakness of their personal situations. One-third of the young people surveyed describe themselves as unemployed and looking for work. About two-thirds say they or a member of their household was looking for a job at some point last year; that figure is only about one-half for the entire poll.

Perhaps for those reasons, this group's commitment to the city is shaky. Forty-five percent of the young say they would move out of Philadelphia if they could – a higher share than among the rest of those polled.

Finally, there are African Americans, who make up about 44 percent of the population. News coverage of this survey paid a lot of attention to the fact that blacks are less happy with Nutter than whites are. But the differences between black and white views of Philadelphia go far beyond assessments of the mayor.

Only half of black residents rate their neighborhoods as good places to live, compared to three-fourths of whites. Blacks are also less likely than whites to feel safe at night on their neighborhood streets. Indeed, blacks give the city lower ratings all around.

Twenty-eight percent of African Americans describe their financial situations as poor, compared with 18 percent of whites. Among those under the age of 65 and not retired, 3 out of 10 blacks describe themselves as unemployed and looking for work, compared with less than 2 out of 10 whites.

For all that, though, black Philadelphians are among the most optimistic people around. Sixty-three percent think the city will be better five years from now, while only 15 percent don't; 52 percent expect the public schools to improve, while only 24 percent don't. This confidence extends to their own financial situations: 62 percent expect to see improvement this year, and only 5 percent see tougher days ahead.

Taken as a whole, these numbers provide useful guidance for city leaders as Philadelphia, along with the rest of the country, seeks to recover from the recession.

In a city that can be hard on itself, newcomers' positive outlook and energy are valuable assets that shouldn't be squandered. Young people may be drawn to the vibrancy of Center City and environs, but they won't stay long without jobs. And the optimism of African Americans, many of whom experience the harsher sides of city life on a daily basis, is an underappreciated source of hope for Philadelphia's future.

Larry Eichel is project director of the Philadelphia Research Initiative for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

This op-ed was published by the Philadelphia Inquirer.