To mark the release of its 15th annual “State of the City” report, The Pew Charitable Trusts hosted an extensive public conversation on April 12 about critical issues facing Philadelphia and visions for the city’s future.
The event, organized in partnership with The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, was held at the Free Library of Philadelphia and streamed online.
Susan K. Urahn, president and CEO of Pew, offered introductory remarks. As Pew celebrates its 75th anniversary, she said, it retains a significant presence in its home city through funding social services, the arts, and civic initiatives, and via its Philadelphia-focused research and policy work. The “State of the City” report is an integral part of that effort, she said: “Helping the city benchmark its progress and tell its story year after year helps create momentum for change and ensures that our hometown thrives.”
In addition to Urahn, Jim Friedlich, executive director and chief executive officer of the Lenfest Institute also spoke, as did Donna Frisby-Greenwood, senior vice president, Philadelphia and scientific advancement, and Elinor Haider, senior director, Philadelphia program.
Katie Martin, who led the effort to produce the “State of the City report,” presented some of its key findings, including substantial progress in the post-pandemic economic recovery and a growing immigrant population. She also documented daunting and persistent problems, including an 11% rate of deep poverty, 516 homicides, and an estimated 1,400 unintentional drug deaths—a record high.
And Martin noted that incomes in Philadelphia have been growing much more slowly for lower-income households than for their middle- and upper-income counterparts. The increases from 2005 through 2021, adjusted for inflation, were 22% for the upper-income group, 13.5% for the middle group, and only 6% at the lower end. These numbers and others, she said, show “a series of challenges that are not equitably experienced throughout the city.”
Equity also was central to the ensuing panel conversation, moderated by Michael O’Bryan, founder/principal of Humanature, an organizational design strategy firm and a distinguished resident fellow at the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University.
For example, panelist the Rev. Luis Cortes Jr., founder, president, and chief executive officer of Esperanza, which works in the Hunting Park section of North Philadelphia, said he saw “a tale of two cities in conflict.” On the one hand, he said, new residents are enjoying promising economic futures in health care and technology. On the other, ongoing poverty in its many forms persists.
O’Bryan described the challenges facing the city—and the solutions as well—as complex and interconnected. The panelists discussed the problems they see firsthand in their work and suggested a variety of responses.
Dr. Adriana Torres-O’Connor, president and chief executive officer of the local nonprofit Mental Health Partnerships, highlighted the need to expand mental services in the wake of the trauma created by the pandemic. To help bolster the provider ranks in mental health and other fields, she advocated eliminating or reducing degree requirements for certain jobs. Such requirements, she said, promulgate economic inequities and limit the supply of workers in sectors that are already shorthanded.
Wil Reynolds, chief executive officer and vice president, innovation, of Seer Interactive, a Philadelphia-based digital marketing firm, advocated for a more business-friendly tax system—including incentives for hiring city residents—and better public schools that would help produce qualified job candidates. To staff his own growing business, he found it necessary to open a second office in San Diego.
“Philly could not support our voracious needs for talent,” Reynolds said. “And I think that’s sad. I want to grow this place.”
Dr. Akira Drake Rodriguez, assistant professor at the Weitzmann School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania, identified the need for better school buildings and for increasing the supply of truly affordable housing.
“People can’t afford to live in this city anymore,” she said. “It’s not going to result in our city being more affluent because we push all the poor people out. It’s going to result in a really unhealthy ecosystem …”
Cortes said he, too, would like to see more affordable housing, particularly for the working class. He called the city budget a “moral document,” asking how officials could spend money for new dog parks while failing to open swimming pools last summer in low-income neighborhoods.
O’Bryan likened addressing the city’s many problems to building a cathedral: both take ambitious vision, long-term commitment, and decades to accomplish. This “cathedral thinking,” he said, “reminds us that things take a lot of time to solve.”
The event also featured Aseem Shukla and Julia Terruso of The Philadelphia Inquirer, who presented the results of the Lenfest Institute’s Every Voice, Every Vote citywide poll, for which Pew provided guidance and analysis. The Inquirer also shared additional comments gleaned from interviews with some of the poll respondents.
Larry Eichel is a senior adviser for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia research and policy initiative.
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