Will the COVID-19 Pandemic Reverse Philadelphia’s Progress?

Every spring since 2009, The Pew Charitable Trusts has gathered data from numerous sources for our “State of the City” report on Philadelphia. But this year, because of COVID-19, the findings must be seen in a different light.

The numbers we’ve assembled this year can only serve as a reminder of how the city was doing before the pandemic arrived. But that reminder is useful, perhaps even essential, because it helps focus attention on the long-standing issues that await Philadelphia once the current situation ends—issues including poverty, jobs, and crime.

When 2020 began, as our new report indicates, Philadelphia’s story was largely one of success, building upon years of economic progress and demographic change, albeit against a backdrop of persistently high poverty and a rise in violent crime that has the potential to alter the city’s overall trajectory.

The population rose for the 13th consecutive year in 2019, the share of Philadelphians with college degrees grew, and the local economy continued a years-long record of expansion. The job count was at its highest since 1990, and median household incomes had risen by a healthy margin in the past few years.

But the threat to public safety was becoming hard to ignore. In 2019, violent crimes rose 7.2 percent. The number of homicides reached 356 in 2019, or nearly one per day, a figure essentially unchanged from the previous year but up nearly 45 percent since 2013. And in the early months of 2020, the homicide rate was on track to be even higher.

The rise in crime came at a time when concern about public safety was already one of the main reasons people were leaving Philadelphia, according to a Pew poll, and when many other cities were seeing a drop in homicides.

Philadelphia officials had attributed the increase in homicides in part to opioid misuse, which has affected neighborhoods throughout the city and put a strain on the health care system even before COVID-19 hit.

The context for much of this, of course, is Philadelphia’s enduring challenge with entrenched poverty, which city officials have long seen as Philadelphia’s core problem. Nearly 380,000 Philadelphians live below the poverty line.

After the pandemic wanes and the human and financial tolls have been recorded, the city may face new questions about these familiar topics. Will the city stop growing? Will the spike in unemployment be a short-term setback or a long-term problem? Will the rise in homicides continue—or will Philadelphia be a less violent place when the pandemic ends? What will happen to those living at or near the poverty line? Will the poverty rate rise?

In normal times, we’d look to the recent past to offer answers. But in 2020, and perhaps even beyond, that approach may no longer work.

This is an abbreviated version of an editorial published by The Philadelphia Inquirer on April 7, 2020. Click here to read the full op-ed.

Larry Eichel is a senior adviser and Jason Hachadorian is a senior associate with Pew’s Philadelphia research and policy initiative.

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