Opinion

Philadelphia By the Numbers Not So Grim

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Three numbers tell the tale of the state of Philadelphia 2010 - one promising, one troubling, and one confusing.

Promising is the total number of serious crimes in the city, down 10 percent from last year. In 2009, Philadelphia had fewer major crimes than at any time in the last 31 years and the fewest violent crimes in 20 years.

Troubling is the number of jobs, an average of 651,000 within the city limits last year, the lowest in Philadelphia's modern history. The city held its own during the early stages of the recession. But it shed 1.7 percent of its jobs in 2009, while the region as a whole lost 3.4 percent.

And simply confusing are the latest population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. After years of reporting that Philadelphia was gradually and persistently losing residents, the bureau recently determined that the city has been growing for much of the last decade.

The overall statistical portrait of Philadelphia 2010 is not as grim as one might expect for a place that has endured one city budget crisis after another and is still trying to escape the "tyrannical hold" of the recession, to use the words of Mayor Nutter.

There is, to be sure, plenty of disturbing data to be found in Pew's latest analysis, an update of the comprehensive statistical look at the city's condition that our Philadelphia Research Initiative published a year ago.

Now as then, the city suffers from a poverty rate (24.3 percent) that is among the highest in the nation, an educational attainment level (only 21 percent of adults with college degrees) that is well below the national average, and a combined state and local tax burden that is one of the highest of any major city. All are drags on Philadelphia's prospects.

It is the jobs number that most concerns local officials these days. For residents, it may not matter whether jobs are in the city or the suburbs, only that they are available somewhere in the region. But City Hall needs the taxes that city-based jobs generate to fund government services.

The jobs shortage is real and painful, as documented by the results of a poll done in January for the Philadelphia Research Initiative. In that survey, 21 percent of adult Philadelphians described themselves as unemployed and looking for work. Forty-nine percent said they or a member of their household had fit that description at some point during the previous 12 months.

Looking at the local employment numbers over the last decade, two trends stand out. One is the gradual erosion in the total inventory of jobs, including the near-disappearance of manufacturing, once the guts of the city's economy. The other is the continuing expansion of one sector, education and health services, which now accounts for 32 percent of all city jobs. More than ever, it is the economic bulwark of the city and the region.

Thanks in part to the strength of "eds and meds," the Philadelphia region's economic performance during the recession has been no worse than average compared with the other top 100 metropolitan areas, according to the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program.

The news on the crime front is promising no matter how one looks at the data. The incidence of major crimes has dropped to levels long unseen in Philadelphia, 73,581 of them in 2009 compared with 98,015 in 2000. Down, too, is the level of residents' worry about crime, although it remains by far their top concern about the city. Poll results showed a 10-percentage-point drop since last year in the number of Philadelphians citing crime as one of the things they like least about living in the city.

Numbers from other categories provide reasons for cheer. In the Philadelphia public schools, standardized test scores continue their decadelong rise, although only about half of the students tested get advanced or proficient scores in reading and math. Fire deaths last year were the lowest ever recorded. Housing prices have stabilized in many neighborhoods, rising about 4 percent citywide last year, according to local real estate economist Kevin Gillen.

In the face of all of these developments, positive and negative, the mood of residents seems determinedly upbeat.

Philadelphians have come through their recent travails in a remarkably positive frame of mind; our polling found that they believe the city remains headed in the right direction and have noticed no significant deterioration in city services. By a ratio of more than 3-1, residents expect the city to be a better place five years from now than it is today.

Then, there is the perplexing matter of the city's population. In response to an appeal from the Nutter administration, the Census Bureau recently raised its estimate of Philadelphia's population for 2008 and then placed the 2009 number even higher at 1,547,297. This compares to an estimate of 1,449,634 for 2007 and a count of 1,517,550 in 2000.

Should a similar population number emerge from the more authoritative, decennial census this spring, Philadelphia officially will have ended six decades of near-constant population shrinkage. This would, at the very least, be a boon to the civic image and psyche, an indication that the city can aspire to more in its future than years of graceful decline.

Larry Eichel is project director of the Philadelphia Research Initiative for The Pew Charitable Trusts. The initiative's latest report isPhiladelphia: The State of the City—A 2010 Update.

This op-ed was published by the Philadelphia Inquirer.