Pew Survey Finds Philadelphians Optimistic About Their City, But Residents Are Split Over Budget Options

Pew Survey Finds Philadelphians Optimistic About Their City, But Residents Are Split Over Budget Options

A year into his term as mayor, Michael Nutter is getting mostly high marks from city residents. And Philadelphians are more optimistic about their city than they have been in some time.

Yet, Philadelphians don't like some of the actions the mayor has taken so far to deal with the city's massive budget shortfall, and there is no public consensus about where he should go from here.

These are some of the findings of a wide-ranging new poll of 1,600 city residents commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative and conducted by Abt SRBI Public Affairs, working with Rutgers Professor Cliff Zukin.

Despite the controversy surrounding the way he has been trying to balance the city budget, Mayor Nutter is favorably viewed by most city residents. In the poll, 71 percent of those questioned gave him a favorable rating, 23 percent unfavorable. Asked to rate Nutter's performance in office, 46 percent gave him a letter grade of “A” or “B,” and 21 percent gave a grade of “D” or “F.”

Mayor Nutter's lowest ratings came from African Americans, people making less than $30,000 a year, and those who had not gone to college. His highest ratings came from whites, people making more than $100,000, and college graduates.

But Philadelphians are unhappy about how the mayor has handled the budget crisis thus far. By an overwhelming margin, 65 percent to 27 percent, they oppose the announced cutbacks in city services involving libraries, fire companies and swimming pools—some of which did not take place. The opposition runs deep: 51 percent described themselves as “strongly opposed” to the Nutter administration's plans in those areas. (The polling began just after a judge blocked the plans to close 11 branch libraries.) At the same time, though, 58 percent said they were confident the mayor would do the right thing on the budget, while 37 percent said they were not.

Respondents were split over another key element in the city's plans to deal with its budget difficulties— the decision to suspend planned reductions in wage and business taxes in the years ahead. Forty-four percent were opposed to the idea, while 43 percent were in favor.

Philadelphians also were evenly split when asked to choose between these two options moving forward: higher taxes and more services (44 percent) and lower taxes and fewer services (45 percent). Moreover, while big majorities said they would approve higher taxes for specific purposes such as police or schools, 62 percent said that city taxes are too high already.

“The poll shows that the mayor has retained much of his credibility, despite the unpopularity of his actions cutting back services,” said Larry Eichel, project director of the Philadelphia Research Initiative. “Building some sort of consensus about the coming year's budget plans will clearly be a challenge for him. Our poll shows no consensus out there now.”

None of this, though, has dampened the optimism of city residents. They know about the city's financial situation and persistent problems with crime, education and job creation. And yet 63 percent of them said they think Philadelphia is a good or excellent place to live and even more, 68 percent, said it will be better five years from now.

This optimism is widespread; even a majority (53 percent) of those who described the city as a fair or poor place now believe it will get better in the next five years. Two out of three Philadelphians (66 percent) say they would recommend the city to a friend as a place to live. By 46 percent to 37 percent, respondents said the city is headed in the right direction and not off on the wrong track, the best reading in some time. These results are particularly noteworthy because 81 percent of respondents described the city's current financial situation as “not very good” or “bad.”

This represents a sea change from the last years of the Street administration. In January of 2007, for instance, a Franklin & Marshall College poll found that only 13 percent of Philadelphians believed the city was headed in the right direction while 61 percent said it was on the wrong track. 

As is the case in assessing attitudes toward Mayor Nutter, the level of optimism about the city varies among different groups. Nearly three quarters of whites (72 percent) rate the city positively compared to 57 percent of blacks and Hispanics. People making more than $100,000 were far more upbeat (84 percent) than those in the lowest income groupings (about 60 percent).  Philadelphians over the age of 65 give the city higher ratings than those under 35, and residents of South Philadelphia are more upbeat than people living in North Philadelphia.

Additional results of this benchmark survey, which will be an annual event, are to be released later this month.

How the study was conducted

The Philadelphia Research Initiative survey was conducted by telephone between January 2 and January 19 among a citywide random sample of 1,600 city residents, ages 18 and older. Most of the survey was completed before January 15, when Mayor Nutter announced that the city's budget shortfall was bigger than previously projected. Interviews were conducted with 1,200 landline users and 400 cell phone users to reach a broad representative sample of Philadelphians.

The final sample was weighted to reflect the demographic breakdown of the city. The margin of error for the entire sample is approximately +/- 2.5 percentage points. The margin of error is higher for subgroups. Surveys are subject to other error sources as well, including sampling coverage error, recording error and respondent error.

Abt SRBI Public Affairs designed the survey and conducted all interviewing, working with Cliff Zukin, veteran pollster and professor of political science and public policy at Rutgers University.

About The Philadelphia Research Initiative

The Philadelphia Research Initiative ( is a new unit created by Pew in fall 2008 to study critical issues facing Philadelphia and provide impartial research and analysis for the benefit of decision makers, the news media and the public. The initiative conducts public opinion polling, produces in-depth reports, and publishes briefs that illuminate front-and-center issues. Coming next month is a comprehensive “State of the City” report, tracking trends on a wide array of indicators, comparing Philadelphia to other cities and to its own past.