A new, wide-ranging State of the City report from The Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative depicts a city that has made progress on a number of key fronts but still struggles with long-term forces of decline.
In 2009, Philadelphia can boast an economy that offers relative stability but little dynamism, a crime rate that has declined but not enough for residents to feel secure, a public education system making progress but struggling with the basics, a vibrant cultural community threatened by hard times, a population that is poorer and less healthy than in other cities, and a city government spending a growing share of its revenues on criminal justice and employee benefits.
Through lively and accessible graphics, Philadelphia 2009: The State of the City examines the city's strengths and weaknesses, its sources for hope and reasons for concern, and highlights key indicators that can be used to gauge changes in the city from this point forward. In addition, it compares Philadelphia to other major cities in terms of its tax burden, crime rate, educational attainment, spending per school student and poverty rate.
“Our hope is that the wealth of relevant facts in this report will assist policy makers, opinion leaders and concerned citizens as they try to address the city's problems and reinforce its strengths,” said Larry Eichel, project director of the Philadelphia Research Initiative.
What emerges from the data, which was compiled from numerous sources, is a complex and nuanced tale of a city in which every positive indicator seems to be accompanied by a negative one:
- While the number of Philadelphians on welfare is less than a third of what it was before the Clinton-era reforms took effect in the 1990s, the number of poor people in the city has grown by about 57,000 during this decade. This happened even though the overall population was declining by roughly the same number. The city has a poverty rate approaching 25 percent.
- Philadelphia public school students' test scores have increased steadily in recent years, rising from miserable to poor. And other problems remain. In the last academic year, 24 percent of the system's high school students were suspended at least once. Philadelphia continues to lag well behind other cities in the percentage of adults with college degrees.
- Until the recession started, the long-term decline in the number of jobs in Philadelphia appeared to have stopped; the city had nearly as many jobs in 2008 as it did in the late 1990s. But the tax structure continues to be a deterrent to job and population growth; the combined city and state tax burden on low- and middle-income individuals is among the highest in the nation.
- Major crime is down substantially from the early years of the decade—although it has not dropped much in the last few years—and the homicide rate fell 15 percent in 2008. Even so, the concern about public safety remains intense, and the prison population continues to rise, approaching 10,000 while eating up taxpayer funds.
- Growth in spending by city government has outpaced inflation by 14 percent this decade, with much of the growth caused by the increasing cost of employee benefits. Unless changes are made, benefit costs are projected to surpass $48,000 per employee by 2013. At the same time, the number of city employees actually declined slightly over the decade, and the amount of money spent on neighborhood-based services and the central bureaucracy fell after inflation is taken into account.
- The city's diverse arts and cultural community, which includes 26 institutions and organizations that are at least 100 years old, remains a huge civic asset. In 2007, more people paid admission to cultural events than paid to see the city's four major sports teams. The recession looms as a real challenge to this community since many of the groups live close to the financial edge.
- A rising number of residents are living without health insurance, 13.2 percent by the most recent estimate, a percentage that is slightly better than the national average. But Philadelphia fares worse than the national average in terms of adults with high blood pressure and diabetes—and appears to be seeing an increase in smoking even as smoking declines nationally.
Veteran journalist Tom Ferrick Jr., who has been following city issues since the 1970s, is the principal author of the report, which will be updated in the years to come.