How COVID-19 Has Undercut Philadelphians’ Physical and Financial Well-Being

Pew poll also reveals less positive views of police and public safety

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How COVID-19 Has Undercut Philadelphians’ Physical and Financial Well-Being
Tim Tai/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

The coronavirus pandemic has hit Philadelphians hard—in ways that affect their jobs, their economic security, and their mental and physical health. Following the deaths of civilians at the hands of public safety officers and amid the subsequent civil unrest throughout the country, Philadelphians’ attitudes toward police have become less favorable. And the city’s residents also feel less safe in their neighborhoods than at any other time in recent years.

Polling by The Pew Charitable Trusts, conducted from July 27 through Aug. 24, finds that 58% of Philadelphians know someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 and 24% know someone who has died from it. In the months since the virus-related economic shutdown, a quarter of residents have fallen behind in rent or mortgage payments, and nearly a third have done so on credit card or other bills. Twenty-eight percent have had problems paying for food, and half have reported feeling seriously depressed or anxious. Forty percent of Philadelphians who were employed at the time of the shutdown lost their jobs or had their pay cut or their hours reduced. And in most cases, Hispanics and Black people experienced these impacts more than White people did.

Attitudes toward police, especially among non-Hispanic White people, have become less positive. Four years ago, three-fourths of this demographic in Philadelphia had confidence in the police to treat Blacks and Whites equally; now, only half do. Overall, the percentage of Philadelphians expressing confidence has fallen from 60% to 47%. Majorities of the poll’s respondents give the Philadelphia Police Department, Mayor Jim Kenney, and Commissioner Danielle Outlaw “only fair” or “poor” ratings for their handling of May and June’s local demonstrations against racial injustice. (The mayor and other city officials get better ratings for their handling of the pandemic.) Nearly 3 out of 5 residents say the police department needs some reforms, while another 3 in 10 want a complete overhaul. At the same time, only 14% of residents—and just 6% of Black respondents—want to reduce the size of the department, and 45% say the department is not large enough.

As was the case in the 2019 Pew Philadelphia Poll, respondents list public safety as the top issue facing the city, with 41% mentioning it. In one respect, however, concern about public safety is stronger than in years past: Only 49% of Philadelphians say they feel safe outside in their neighborhoods at night, the lowest figure Pew has recorded in more than a decade of polling. (Typically, the percentage has been in the 55% to 60% range.) Blacks and Hispanics are less likely to say they feel safe than in past surveys.

And more than 40% of Philadelphians say that events related to the pandemic and to the demonstrations have made the city a less desirable place to live. But the degree to which these sentiments translate into an intention to move out is unclear: The share of residents who expect to still be living in the city five or 10 years from now is 66%, lower than in 2019 but essentially the same as in 2015 and 2016, the previous two times the question was asked.

The survey—conducted for Pew by SSRS, an independent research company based in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania—used address-based sampling, with individuals initially contacted by mail. SSRS collected data from 1,025 adult Philadelphia residents; 662 filled out the questionnaire online and 363 completed it on paper. The margin of error for results involving all respondents is plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.

Attitudes on the pandemic and its impacts

The direct effects of the virus

Fifty-eight percent of Philadelphia residents say they know someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. The percentage is lower among those with a high school diploma or less schooling (48%) as well as those making less than $30,000 per year (46%) and over 65 years of age (39%).

Twenty-four percent of Philadelphians know someone who has died from the virus. The share is substantially lower among non-Hispanic White Philadelphians (12%) than among Blacks, Hispanics, or “other” groups—a category that includes Asian Americans and other racial or ethnic groups for which the survey did not produce statistically significant samples. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1 Percentage of Philadelphians Who Know Someone Who Has Died From Coronavirus Hispanic and Black people are more likely to have lost someone they know during the outbreak
Philadelphians Percentage
Total 0.24
Hispanic 0.345588235
Black, non-Hispanic 0.325136612
Other 0.212121212
White, non-Hispanic 0.123425693

Note: “Other” includes Asian Americans and other racial or ethnic groups not large enough to produce statistically significant samples.

Source: The Pew Philadelphia Poll, 2020
© 2020 The Pew Charitable Trusts

Effects on daily life, including ability to pay for food and housing

In the survey, 66% of Philadelphians say that COVID-19 has had a major impact on their lives, with another 24% describing the impact as minor; the rest say there has been no impact or did not answer the question.

Nearly one-third say they have fallen behind on credit card or other bills since March as a result of the pandemic. Twenty-eight percent have had problems paying for food, and 24% have had issues paying their mortgage or rent. By comparison, in a 2019 Pew poll, 6% of Philadelphians said they had trouble paying their mortgage or rent many months out of the year; another 34% in that poll said they had trouble for a few months. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2 Impact of Pandemic’s Economic Fallout on Philadelphians Percentage who say they or members of their household have faced various financial challenges
Financial Challenges Percentage
Fell behind on credit card or other bills 0.32
Had problems paying for food 0.28
Fell behind on paying rent or mortgage 0.24
Had problems affording health costs or prescriptions 0.17
Had a problem getting child care 0.14
Experienced at least one of the above 0.49

Source: The Pew Philadelphia Poll, 2020
© 2020 The Pew Charitable Trusts

The issues cited in Figure 2 have affected some Philadelphians more than others. While 49% of residents say they have experienced at least one of the problems listed, the share is less than one-third for those with a college degree and 60% for those without a high school diploma.

Substantial variation by racial and ethnic groups is evident as well, with only about one-third of non-Hispanic White people experiencing one of the issues mentioned in Figure 2. In contrast, three-quarters of Hispanic Philadelphians and 55% of Black Philadelphians experienced at least one of the impacts. (See Figure 3.)

Figure 3 Impact of Pandemic’s Economic Fallout on Philadelphians, by Race and Ethnicity Percentage who say they or members of their household have faced at least one of the financial challenges cited in Figure 2
Philadelphians Percentage
Hispanic 0.75
Black, non-Hispanic 0.55
Other 0.53
White, non-Hispanic 0.32
Total 0.49

Note: “Other” includes Asian Americans and other racial or ethnic groups not large enough to produce statistically significant samples.

Source: The Pew Philadelphia Poll, 2020
© 2020 The Pew Charitable Trusts

The indirect emotional and physical toll

The survey also asked about health issues beyond the virus itself. Forty-nine percent of residents say they or someone in their household has been seriously depressed or anxious since March 1. (See Figure 4.) In a national survey completed in July by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 53% of adults say that stress and worry related to the pandemic have had a negative impact on their mental health. In Philadelphia, 44% of residents also say they’ve had to delay medical treatment for a condition other than COVID-19.

Figure 4 Percentage Reporting Health Impacts for Themselves or Someone in Their Household The pandemic has had many implications for Philadelphians’ well-being
Health Impacts Percentage
Felt seriously depressed or anxiety-ridden 0.49
Had been unable to get a medical appointment 0.45
Had to delay treatment for a medical condition other than the coronavirus 0.44
Had trouble accessing therapy or mental health services 0.2
Experienced at least one of the above 0.74

Source: The Pew Philadelphia Poll, 2020
© 2020 The Pew Charitable Trusts

Some 74% of Philadelphians have experienced at least one of the four medical-related issues listed in Figure 4. The percentage for many demographic groups is close to that number, although it is higher—86%—for Hispanics.

Impact on employment and income

In the survey, city residents note how the pandemic has affected their work. Forty percent of those who were employed on March 1 say the outbreak negatively affected their jobs: They lost their positions, had to take pay cuts, and/or had their hours reduced. (See Figure 5.)

Those on the lower end of the income scale got hit hard. Sixty percent of Philadelphians earning less than $30,000 say they experienced a negative job impact, compared with 36% of those making $50,000 to $99,999 and 22% of those making $100,000 or more.

Of those who lost their jobs, 30% say they were unable to access unemployment benefits; the survey did not probe the reasons why. In addition, 38% say that the job of someone else in their household was negatively affected.

Figure 5 How Individuals’ Employment Status Has Changed During the Pandemic The outbreak has negatively affected the jobs of 40% of those who were employed on March 1
Employment Status Percentage
My job did not change 0.46
Total share of those whose jobs were negatively affected by the pandemic 0.4
I was laid off/fired from my job and do not expect to go back 0.11
I was laid off from my job/furloughed and expect to go back 0.12
My hours were cut 0.11
My pay was reduced 0.08
The business I own closed, either temporarily or permanently 0.08
Other 0.17

Notes: Respondents could answer “yes” to multiple prompts. The “other” category represents replies indicating that the pandemic affected respondents’ jobs but not in the ways provided.

Source: The Pew Philadelphia Poll, 2020
© 2020 The Pew Charitable Trusts

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Philadelphia’s unemployment rate was an estimated 15.4% in August, nearly triple the rate in the months before the pandemic’s impacts were realized.

Working conditions

Under orders from Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf effective March 19, many businesses in Philadelphia were initially forced to shut down and support telework whenever possible. About 52% of employed poll respondents say they have worked entirely or mostly from home, while 44% have been unable to work remotely.

Here, too, the results varied substantially by race and level of education. For example, 73% of employed college graduates and 65% of employed non-Hispanic White Philadelphians say they were able to work entirely or mostly from home, compared with just 35% of Black Philadelphians and 31% of residents with a high school diploma or less schooling.

Of those unable to work from home, a majority—58%—say they are worried about potentially contracting the coronavirus at work. In a similar vein, 63% of those who use public transportation say they consider doing so pretty unsafe (38%) or very unsafe (25%).

K-12 education

The poll did not ask Philadelphia parents about their reaction to plans to reopen most K-12 schools in the city on a virtual basis this fall; those plans were still in flux when the survey was sent to potential respondents. But it did ask about the experience with home-based virtual learning last spring, after schools shut down in March.

Eighty-three percent of parents describe having their children at home as at least somewhat disruptive, with 37% calling it very disruptive. Only 19% say they think their children learned as much through remote learning as they would have at school; 45% say their kids learned a little less, and 35% say their kids learned a lot less.

Local government response

Philadelphians generally approve of the way Mayor Kenney and city officials have handled the pandemic, with 59% describing their performance as good or excellent and 41% as only fair or poor. Roughly 66% give Gov. Wolf and state officials excellent or good ratings, 33% only fair or poor. (See Figure 6.)

Figure 6 Perceptions of Public Officials’ Handling of COVID-19 Crisis Most approve of city and state response to the outbreak
Perception Excellent Good Only fair Poor Didn't answer
Mayor Kenney and city health officials 0.12 0.47 0.27 0.14 0.01
Gov. Wolf and other state officials 0.21 0.46 0.23 0.09 0.01

Note: In the column for “Gov. Wolf and other state officials,” the excellent (21%) and good (46%) ratings, when combined, add up to 66%, as reported in the text above—not 67%—due to rounding.

Source: The Pew Philadelphia Poll, 2020
© 2020 The Pew Charitable Trusts

Feelings about the future

Some 4 out of 5 residents expect another surge in COVID-19 cases in the next six months. And of the 90% of respondents who say the pandemic has had a major or minor impact on their lives, half expect that it will take more than a year for their families’ lives to get back to the way they were before the pandemic—or that their lives will never get back to that point. (See Figure 7.)

Figure 7 Length of Time Before Family Will Return to Pre-Pandemic Way of Life Answers from those saying COVID-19 has had a major or minor impact on their lives
Length Percentage
In the next month 0.02
Sometime in the next three months 0.04
In the next six months 0.11
In the next year 0.31
Over a year 0.26
Things will never get back to the way they were before 0.24

Note: The percentages represent 90% of respondents.

Source: The Pew Philadelphia Poll, 2020
© 2020 The Pew Charitable Trusts

Attitudes toward police

Starting in late May, after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, mostly peaceful demonstrations were held in Philadelphia. The first few days of the protests also included some looting and property damage in Center City and along several commercial corridors. And protesters were tear-gassed by police on I-676 in Center City and on 52nd Street in West Philadelphia.

The Pew poll probed Philadelphians’ reactions to both events and found attitudes toward police to be less favorable than in previous years, with the changes most dramatic among non-Hispanic White people.

In the survey, only 35% of residents rate the Philadelphia Police Department’s performance in responding to the demonstrations as “good” or “excellent,” while 64% say it was “only fair” or “poor.” Mayor Kenney and Police Commissioner Outlaw receive similar ratings for their roles in handling the situation. In Kenney’s case, the numbers are 39% good or excellent and 60% fair or poor; for Outlaw, they are 41% and 59%, respectively. White respondents have a particularly negative view of the mayor’s performance, with 74% rating his response only fair or poor.

And Philadelphians’ respect for police has waned. In the current survey, about 62% of residents say they have “a great deal” or “a good amount” of respect for police, down from 72% in 2016. (See Figure 8.)

Figure 8 Philadelphians’ Respect for Police, 2016 and 2020 Residents have less regard for police department now than four years ago
Year Great deal Good amount Just some Not much
2016 0.48 0.24 0.18 0.08
2020 0.27 0.36 0.23 0.14

Notes: In the column for 2020, the great deal (27%) and good amount (36%) results, when combined, add up to 62%, as reported in the text above—not 63%—due to rounding. In 2016, the remainder of respondents either left the question blank or declined to answer.

Source: The Pew Philadelphia Poll, 2016 and 2020
© 2020 The Pew Charitable Trusts

Non-Hispanic White people drove the change in the percentage of Philadelphians who expressed respect for police: In 2016, 86% of them expressed a great deal or a good amount of respect for police, but in 2020 the figure was 61%. There was little change in Black Philadelphians’ respect for police over the same period.

There also was a big shift from 2016 to 2020 when Pew asked city residents if they have confidence in police to treat Black people and White people equally. In the 2020 survey, only 47% of Philadelphians say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of confidence that police will treat members of the two groups equally—down from 60% in 2016, the last time Pew asked the question. (See Table 1.) In breaking down the responses by neighborhood, West Philadelphia stood out, with only 28% of respondents there saying they had confidence.

Table 1

Philadelphians’ Confidence in Police to Treat Black People and White People Equally

  2016 2020
A great deal or a fair amount 60% 47%
Just some or very little 37% 52%
Don’t know/declined to answer 3% 1%

Source: The Pew Philadelphia Poll, 2016 and 2020

Here again, non-Hispanic White Philadelphians largely drove the change. In 2016, 76% of them trusted police to treat Black people and White people equally. In the current survey, that figure has fallen to 50%—which is still higher than the percentage for Black Philadelphians, which dropped from 47% to 40%. (See Figure 9.)

Figure 9 Philadelphians Who Trust Police to Treat Black People and White People Equally, by Race and Ethnicity Respondents expressing “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of confidence
Philadelphians 2016 2020
Black, non-Hispanic 0.47 0.4
White, non-Hispanic 0.76 0.5
Hispanic 0.45 0.48

Source: The Pew Philadelphia Poll, 2016 and 2020
© 2020 The Pew Charitable Trusts

The survey also probed attitudes on whether changes to the police department are needed—and if so, of what magnitude. Fifty-eight percent of Philadelphians say the department needs some reforms, 30% are calling for a complete overhaul, and 11% say the police department is fine as is.

But although there have been calls in some quarters to reduce police departments’ size and funding, most Philadelphians do not appear to support such moves. Only 14% say the city has too many officers; 39% say it has the right number; and 45% say it does not have enough, with 52% of Black people and 53% of Hispanics taking that position. Only 6% of Black people and 8% of Hispanics say the city has too many police; 23% of White people share that view. (See Table 2.)

Table 2

Few Philadelphians Want to Reduce the Number of Police

Percentage who hold the following views of the city, by race and ethnicity
All Black White Hispanic Other
Doesn’t have enough police 45% 52% 37% 53% 44%
Has the right number of police 39% 40% 39% 36% 41%
Has too many police 14% 6% 23% 8% 15%

Note: “Other” includes Asian Americans and other racial or ethnic groups not large enough to produce statistically significant samples.

Source: The Pew Philadelphia Poll

Concern about public safety

For all that has changed in 2020, one thing has remained the same: Philadelphians see public safety as the city’s top challenge.

In the survey, 41% of residents mention public safety in response to an open-ended question allowing them to cite more than one issue; the same percentage did so in 2019. (As of late September, the city’s homicide total was on pace to exceed 400 for the first time since 2006.) Other concerns listed by at least 5% of respondents in 2020 include poverty/homelessness, education, jobs and the economy, and COVID-19’s impact. Three other issues—race relations and racism, sanitation and trash, and affordable housing/cost of living—are relatively prominent on the 2020 list but not in the 2019 version. (See Table 3.)

Table 3

Philadelphia’s Most Important Issues

Percentage of respondents mentioning each topic
2020 2019
Crime/drugs/safety 41% 41%
Poverty/homelessness 18% 12%
Education/schools 14% 17%
Jobs/economy 13% 11%
COVID-19’s impact 10% N/A
Race relations/racism 9% 2%
Sanitation/trash 8% N/A
Government function/corruption 7% 5%
Affordable housing/cost of living 7% N/A

Notes: Issues are listed in order of the percentage of respondents who cited them in 2020; only concerns mentioned by at least 5% in 2020 are shown. Respondents could—and often did—name more than one issue in answer to the open-ended question. Researchers then placed the answers into categories. In 2019, the question asked about the most important issue facing “the city and the next mayor.”

Source: The Pew Philadelphia Poll, 2019 and 2020

The level of concern about public safety also surfaced in answer to a question that Pew has posed in eight other surveys since 2009: How safe do you feel when you are out in your neighborhood at night?

In the 2020 survey, only 49% say they feel “completely” or “pretty” safe, the lowest percentage Pew has ever recorded. In the earlier polls, an average of 57% of respondents said they felt safe, with the figure never dropping below 55%. Broken down by race and ethnicity, the 2020 numbers are 40% for Black Philadelphians, 42% for Hispanics, 46% for others (including Asian Americans), and 64% for non-Hispanic White people.

Figure 10 tracks the responses to this question through the years, with fewer Blacks and Hispanics feeling safe now than in 2010, the first year for which racial and ethnic breakdowns were available. The percentage of Black Philadelphians who feel safe has dropped from 51% to 40% over the decade and is down 8 percentage points in just the past year. For Hispanics, the percentage has fallen from 57% to 42% since 2010, with little change in 2020.

Figure 10 Philadelphians Who Feel Completely or Pretty Safe in Their Neighborhoods at Night, 2010-20 By race and ethnicity
Year Total Black, non-Hispanic White, non-Hispanic Hispanic
2010 0.55 0.51 0.59 0.57
2011 0.56 0.55 0.62 0.46
2012 0.57 0.53 0.63 0.46
2013 0.58 0.56 0.64 0.47
2015 0.61 0.54 0.69 0.44
2016 0.59 0.53 0.66 0.49
2019 0.55 0.48 0.67 0.41
2020 0.49 0.4 0.64 0.42

Note: Polls were not conducted in 2014, 2017, and 2018, therefore data is not available for those years.

Source: The Pew Philadelphia Poll, 2010-20
© 2020 The Pew Charitable Trusts

Impacts on Philadelphians’ opinions about living in the city

Questions have been raised, in the media and elsewhere, about whether the events of 2020 have made big cities, including Philadelphia, less attractive places to live. The poll results shed some light on the topic, at least from the point of view of people who live in Philadelphia now.

Forty-three percent of Philadelphians say the coronavirus made the city less attractive to them; 44% say the social justice demonstrations and the way they were handled had a similar impact.

These attitudes do not seem to have translated into a significant increase in the desire to leave the city, at least for now. Asked whether they expect to be living in Philadelphia five to 10 years from now, 66% say they will definitely or probably stay in the city—down slightly from the 72% who expressed that view in 2019 but essentially unchanged from 65% in 2016 and 67% in 2015.

The demographic breakdowns on this question are similar to what they’ve been in the past. More likely to see themselves leaving are higher-income individuals, younger people, and those with college degrees or some college education, while lower-income individuals, longtime residents, and those with a high school education or less schooling are more likely to see themselves staying.

Twelve percent of Philadelphians describe the city as an “excellent” place to live, down from 20% in 2019. The share of residents describing the city as “good” or “excellent” is unchanged at 66%.


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