Crime, Drugs, Public Safety Are the Issues That Matter Most to Philadelphians in 2019

Poll shows big shifts from four years ago, when education topped the list

Philadelphia
Philadelphia police patrol Chestnut Street in Center City during the busy holiday shopping season.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

Philadelphians say the most important issues facing their city in 2019 are those related to crime, drugs, and public safety, a marked shift from four years ago when the top concern was the quality of the local education system.

In response to one strategy for addressing the city’s opioid crisis, residents are split over the idea of creating a safe injection site for users. On other topics, they strongly disapprove of the city’s tax on sweetened beverages, enacted in 2017, but there is no consensus about whether or how to change Philadelphia’s 10-year tax abatement on new construction. And, more broadly, a greater share of residents think the city is headed in the right direction than on the wrong track.

Those are some of the top findings of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ latest Philadelphia Poll, which surveyed 600 city residents by telephone—402 by cellphones and 198 by landlines—from March 18-31. The margin of error is plus or minus 5.6 percentage points.

The top concerns facing Philadelphia

In the survey, Philadelphians were asked to name the most important issue facing the city and its next mayor, who will be elected this fall. This was an open-ended question, allowing participants to say whatever they liked. Those interviewed could give multiple answers, and the responses were sorted into a dozen subject categories.

Crime, public safety, and drugs proved the top issue set, mentioned by 41 percent of those polled. That category was followed by education at 17 percent, and then poverty and neighborhood revitalization/gentrification at 12 percent each.

When Philadelphians answered the same question in a Pew poll conducted in February 2015, 32 percent named education the top issue, followed by crime at 23 percent, and jobs at 22 percent.

But the results are comparable to those from Pew’s August 2016 survey, when the question was slightly different: Respondents were asked what they thought was the biggest “problem” facing the city. At that time, 44 percent said crime, followed by education (20 percent) and jobs (14 percent).

While education and jobs have receded as issues since the 2015 survey, two other topics have become more prominent: poverty and neighborhood revitalization/gentrification. In each case, the share of residents citing the subject as most important rose from 5 percent to 12 percent. Since 2015, the city’s poverty rate, the highest among the nation’s 10 most populous cities, has held steady at 26 percent, and there has been increased attention to issues related to neighborhood change.

The proposed safe injection site

For more than a year, city officials have discussed establishing a facility where individuals would be permitted to inject themselves with opioids and other drugs under medical supervision. Advocates have said creating such a site, which would be the first of its kind in the nation, would save lives, but the local U.S. Attorney’s Office has filed a lawsuit to block it.

In the survey, 50 percent of participants said they supported the idea of a safe injection site, while 44 percent opposed it; the rest offered no opinion. Given the margin of error, the gap between 50 and 44 percent is not statistically significant.

Support for such a site was high among those who have lived in Philadelphia 10 years or less (73 percent) and 18- to 29-year-olds (62 percent). Those ages 50-64 and African-Americans were most likely to oppose the idea (56 and 51 percent, respectively).

The sweetened beverage tax

Since 2017, the city has been taxing sweetened beverages. A levy of 1.5 cents per ounce is imposed on wholesalers, which for the most part have passed it on to consumers.

In the survey, 31 percent said they approved of the tax, while twice as many, 65 percent, disapproved; the rest offered no opinion. A bill is pending in City Council that would phase out the tax, which has helped finance prekindergarten education, community schools, and the rebuilding of parks, recreation centers, and libraries. The poll question did not mention any of the uses of the tax or any of the arguments for or against it.

Approval of the tax was relatively high among those who have lived in the city 10 years or less (48 percent), college graduates (46 percent), and individuals with household incomes of $100,000 or more (39 percent). The levy faced strong disapproval from those with a high school diploma or less (77 percent), residents of Northeast Philadelphia (76 percent), and African-Americans (71 percent).

Residents also were asked specific questions about how the soda tax has affected their behavior. Forty-six percent said they had bought fewer sweetened beverages, 47 percent said the tax had caused them to shop in the suburbs on a regular basis, and 39 percent said they had spent more on groceries as the result of the tax.

The 10-year tax abatement

In the survey, residents were asked about Philadelphia’s 10-year property tax abatement on the value of new construction. In place since 2000, the abatement applies to new buildings and renovations, both commercial and residential. The tax break has been widely credited with spurring building activity in the city, but critics argue that it is no longer necessary and is unfair to longtime Philadelphians whose property assessments and tax bills have been rising.

Thirty-seven percent said they wanted to keep the abatement as is, 31 percent said it should be reduced, and 27 percent called for its elimination. The rest offered no opinion.

Four years ago, answers to the same question were almost identical: 33 percent said the abatement should be kept as is, 30 percent said it should be reduced, and another 30 percent said it should be eliminated.

Is the city headed in the right direction?

In answer to a question asking respondents to choose between two options, 49 percent said they thought the city was generally headed in the right direction, while 38 percent said it was on the wrong track.

That assessment, while positive on balance, is not much changed from the two previous surveys. In 2015, the outcome was 48 percent right direction, 33 percent wrong track; and in 2016, it was 50 percent right direction, 34 percent wrong track.

Larry Eichel is the project director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia research initiative.

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