03/26/2010 - The central idea behind Pew’s mission—applying the power of knowledge to solve society’s problems—is at the heart of what Pew is doing through the work of the Philadelphia Research Initiative.
Philadelphia today is a fascinating mix of vibrancy and decay, wealth and poverty, success and failure, youthful exuberance and battle-tested pragmatism. It is home to many of the nation’s urban woes, yet it has a set of assets all its own.
In 2009, the newly born initiative sought to establish itself as a teller of the truth, with a reputation for delivering reliable information and fair-minded analysis in a highly readable and accessible way. With that in mind, we began by taking Philadelphia’s civic temperature in two ways.
One was to poll local residents, giving voice to their concerns about their leaders, their neighborhoods and their quality of life. This benchmark survey, which we anticipate will be an annual event, revealed a public deeply worried about the presence of crime in their lives but determinedly optimistic about the prospects for themselves and their city.
The other was to compile a report using statistical indicators to document the city’s strengths and weaknesses— in comparison to other cities and to its own past. The result was “Philadelphia 2009: The State of the City.”
This comprehensive report portrayed a city with an economy that boasts relative stability but little dynamism, a public education system making progress but still struggling to get the basics right, a rich and varied cultural scene threatened by hard times, and a population that is poorer and less healthy than that of most other cities.
Much of the rest of the initiative’s energy in 2009 was directed at analyzing how the governments of Philadelphia and other major cities are dealing with the recession and the budget woes that it caused.
The project’s first report on this subject found that Philadelphia was one of a relatively small number of major cities seeking to make up for a budget shortfall with a major tax increase, rather than focusing largely on spending cuts.
The second report, building on a previous Pew study, highlighted the part played in the city’s budget crisis by the rising costs of benefits for city workers. The report noted that, in a few years, Philadelphia expects to be devoting over one-fourth of its entire budget to employee pensions and health care.
The third report focused on the central role of labor negotiations in the urban-budget saga nationally, noting that municipal unions often were forced to choose between making temporary concessions for all of their members or accepting layoffs for some.
As part of these studies, as well as a report on preparations for the 2010 census, we made a point of comparing Philadelphia’s experience to what is happening elsewhere. These comparisons gave our work more power locally, more relevance nationally and more insight overall. Along the way, we found that no one else seems to be doing this kind of research on the problems faced by big cities.
In 2010, the initiative plans to publish a comprehensive study on the use of incarceration in Philadelphia. It will look at how and why the city has come to have a higher percentage of its residents in jail—at a cost of $250 million a year—than all but a few American cities, what is being done to change that, and what the experiences of other cities can teach us.
Also coming is a look at the changes in K-12 education in Philadelphia over the past decade—with fewer students going to parochial schools and more to charters— and what all of it portends for the city’s children and its future.
Building upon the research that we did in 2009, we also will continue to chronicle and assess how Philadelphia and other cities are coping with new economic realities. We will look at cities’ efforts to continue delivering essential municipal services while keeping costs in line with diminished revenues.
In the public life of an older city like Philadelphia, there exists in many quarters a been-there-done-that resistance to change, a feeling that if a particular problem were truly solvable, it would have been solved long ago. At the same time, there appears to be a rise in the desire to change what can be changed and improve what must be improved.
Our hope at the Philadelphia Research Initiative is that our work will energize and empower these innovators by shining a light on problems and finding examples of different ways of dealing with them. We trust that the quality and integrity of our work—with the reputation of Pew behind it—will enlighten the public, inform the debate and help Philadelphia make its way forward.
Managing Director, Information Initiatives and the Philadelphia Program
Project Director, Philadelphia Research Initiative
Read more about Pew's work in Pew Prospectus 2010 (PDF).