03/20/2009 - A dynamic city is always a work in progress, and Philadelphia— one of the oldest cities in the United States—has had more than its share of highs and lows over the past century.
“Corrupt and contented” was the doleful label that muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens slapped on it in his famous 1904 book, The Shame of the Cities. Yet 50 years later, under the consecutive mayoralties of Joseph Clark and Richardson Dilworth, elected by a populace demanding the end of boss politics, Philadelphia became home to one of the nation’s most vibrant reform efforts of the postwar period. A civil service system replaced decades of patronage, government was reorganized under a new home rule charter, and an energized planning commission worked to ensure that the modern city would not always look back longingly to its colonial past.
While reform arguably took one step back for every two forward in the years that followed, in 2007 Philadelphia again elected a reform-minded mayor who vowed to curtail influence peddling at City Hall and run a more responsive, transparent and cost-effective city government. Now Pew is seeking to do its part to improve the city’s prospects by shining a bright light on important issues that must be addressed. It is a relatively new role for Pew in Philadelphia, but one that—like all of Pew’s endeavors—is driven by the power of knowledge.
Pew has been a consistent supporter of its hometown since it was founded in 1948, underwriting cultural and civic projects and providing assistance to those most in need. In 2008, under its newly created Philadelphia Program, Pew established an in-house unit—the Philadelphia Research Initiative—that will produce timely and authoritative reports on critical issues facing the city.
This work is not without precedent at Pew. When there were open races for the mayor’s office in 1999 and 2007, Pew funded major reports that assessed Philadelphia’s strengths and weaknesses relative to six comparable American cities. In addition to covering predictable topics such as education and crime, the 2007 report identified a “sleeper” issue—the soaring costs of pension and health benefits for city workers.
In 2008, Pew, in partnership with the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, followed up with a report, “Philadelphia’s Quiet Crisis: The Rising Cost of Employee Benefits.” The study found that Philadelphia’s city budget was shackled by current and future pension obligations that would impede any administration from improving municipal services or reducing taxes. By 2012, the report projected, pension and retiree health-care costs could devour 28 percent of the city budget.
More recently, Pew and the William Penn Foundation commissioned a study of the city-owned gas utility, Philadelphia Gas Works. Researchers concluded that it is “hobbled by byzantine government oversight” and urgently needs to address an array of structural problems. The study noted that improving the utility’s current condition would not only benefit its customers and the city’s economic competitiveness but also enhance the Gas Works’ value for potential sale or other conveyance.
Pew plans to apply the same unflinching analysis to other topics through the Philadelphia Research Initiative. The project expects to produce three or four in-depth reports each year that get to the bottom of complex issues, often drawing comparisons with other cities. When possible, the reports will describe policy approaches that have been tried elsewhere, objectively listing their pros and cons.
In addition, the initiative will release annual state-of-the-city reports that will rely on a wide array of data to tell the tale of where Philadelphia stands today on such important fronts as jobs, taxes, crime, population growth, poverty, cultural participation, public health and housing starts.
These reports will seek to answer a fundamental question: How is the city doing? The research initiative will also conduct an annual poll of Philadelphians that will track their attitudes on the most important issues facing the city, their views of elected leaders and their sense of whether the city is headed in the right or wrong direction. In short, it will answer a related question: How does the public perceive the city is doing?
The Philadelphia Research Initiative comes at critical time for the city. Even as its downtown and surrounding neighborhoods have thrived, its universities have prospered and its tourist economy has blossomed, Philadelphia continues to lag behind other cities and metropolitan areas on core indicators of economic, personal-income and population growth. Its continuing population loss and high crime rate have blotted its image, and the economic crisis that is intensifying nationally has already forced cutbacks in some of the local services that raise the quality of life for residents. Strong leadership and a supportive citizenry will be needed to tilt the balance in the right direction.
Through the Philadelphia Research Initiative, Pew will seek to better inform the public debate—homing in on issues that should be addressed and pointing the way toward solutions.
Managing Director, Information Initiatives and the Philadelphia Program
Read more about Pew's work in Pew Prospectus 2009 (PDF).