A Troubling Year
In so many ways, 2020 was a troubling year for Philadelphia, one that raised profound questions about its future. The numbers tell the story of a city facing tremendous challenges, not just from the pandemic and its economic impact but from rising drug overdose deaths and gun violence as well.
Philadelphia recorded more than 96,000 COVID-19 cases and 2,500 deaths from the virus in 2020, with the death toll surpassing 3,000 by mid-February 2021. Although the city’s hospitals never ran out of beds and the number of weekly deaths wasn’t as high as it was elsewhere, the impact on the city was devastating all the same.
The pandemic affected virtually every aspect of Philadelphians’ lives—including their economic, educational, social, physical, and emotional well-being—magnifying existing inequities and exposing new fault lines. As documented in a poll by The Pew Charitable Trusts last summer, Black and Hispanic residents of Philadelphia were two and three times more likely than White residents, respectively, to lose jobs and income, and to know someone who died from the coronavirus. The factors underlying such disparities were central to the movement for racial equity and social justice that grew nationally and locally after George Floyd was killed in May by police in Minneapolis.
COVID-19 ravaged the city in other ways as well. Drug overdose deaths, already historically high, rose to record levels, with approximately 1,200 Philadelphians dying, up from 1,150 in 2019. Nearly 500 homicides were reported for the year, the most since 1990 and a 40% increase over the already high 2019 numbers. Experts attributed these trends, seen in varying degrees in other cities, at least in part to the social disruption and despair that 2020 brought: Much of the violence the city reported was concentrated in neighborhoods with high rates of pandemic-related deaths and job losses. Unemployment more than tripled from 5.9% in February to 18% in June, averaging 12.2% for the year.
Economic sectors that had helped fuel the city’s resurgence in the previous decade—hospitality, restaurants, and arts and culture—shut down early in the pandemic, with some reopening later in the year at reduced capacity. Small and medium-sized businesses, a segment of the city’s economy that wasn’t especially strong to begin with, were also hit hard, as were lower-income workers: Many who kept working risked their health daily as they stocked shelves, collected trash, delivered meals, and cared for older adults. Even before the pandemic, the city’s poverty rate stood at 23%—40% for Hispanics, 27% for Black people, 23% for Asian Americans, and 13% for White people.
As 2021 began, several questions about the city’s post-pandemic trajectory were beginning to be asked by officials, business owners, and residents alike:
- Will Philadelphia be a beneficiary or a victim of the trend toward remote work, allowing more people to separate the decision about where to live from where they work, and will that trend make the city’s “eds and meds” sector any less of a bastion of economic strength and stability?
- Will the population decline? In 2020, developers were still betting on the city’s attractiveness, taking out building permits for a record 7,231 residential units, spurred by looming changes in the tax abatement law. And although home sales were down for the year, prices were up.
- How much will Center City offices, as well as the businesses that depend on their occupants, and the taxes they generate, recover from the pandemic? The city government gets 47% of its local revenue from the wage tax, about 40% of which has typically come from commuters; some of that revenue will be lost if people continue working from home.
- Will Philadelphia match or exceed its solid, pre-pandemic record of job creation, having outperformed the nation in three of the four years before the shutdown? How much will the benefits be shared among lowincome residents and people of color?
- When will progress be made on the racial and ethnic inequities highlighted by the pandemic and brought to greater attention by the burgeoning racial justice movement? Before COVID-19, the median household income for Black Philadelphians was 52% of that for White Philadelphians; only 6% of businesses with employees had Black proprietors; and 46% of Black residents were cost-burdened by their housing, compared with 32% of White people.
- When will the city see an end to the staggering increase in gun violence and homicides, which by early 2021 were on track to reach levels not seen in half a century? And how will city officials respond to the challenges ahead?
A recovery will come. But mass vaccination and the end of virus-related restrictions won’t lead to universal celebration. The months and years ahead will determine what kind of Philadelphia emerges and whether the city can move toward economic growth that addresses underlying inequities and challenges.
For the full chapter, download the full report.
Whether the COVID-19 pandemic pushed residents out of the city, pulled people in, or changed its makeup remains to be seen.
Prior to the pandemic, Philadelphia’s population had been rising steadily for more than a decade, a strong sign of civic well-being, with growth concentrated in the center of the city and pockets of the Northeast. In other neighborhoods, the population had stayed the same or declined.
Immigrants have played a big role in the overall population increase. In 2019, 14% of Philadelphians were foreign-born, which is roughly the same as the percentage for the nation as a whole.
And in recent years, the city’s population has become increasingly diverse. As of 2019, 40% of Philadelphians were Black or African American, 34% non-Hispanic White, 15% Hispanic or Latino, and 8% Asian.
For the full chapter on demographics, download the full report.
Few sectors of society were as disrupted by COVID-19 as K-12 education.
The pandemic forced teachers and students to turn largely to virtual learning, with a complete return to school buildings delayed well into 2021. Beyond the timing of when all classrooms would reopen, the great unknown was the long-term impact on student achievement.
Given the situation, the lasting significance of enrollment figures for the 2020-21 academic year was difficult to assess. Schools run by the School District of Philadelphia recorded their biggest drop in student population since 2013-14. Numbers were also down in the Catholic schools but up slightly for charters.
Pre-pandemic census numbers showed 31% of adult Philadelphians with bachelor’s degrees, the highest percentage ever recorded in the city, and 49% of 3- and 4-year-olds in school, which matched the national average.
For the full chapter on education, download the full report.
The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic complicated the city government’s work in 2020.
In planning the city budget for fiscal 2021, which began on July 1, 2020, Philadelphia officials were confronted with a projected $749 million budget shortfall. They closed the gap through various steps: They took $229 million from budget reserves, increased some taxes and fees, and reduced the payroll through layoffs and attrition. Some of these budget-balancing tactics, particularly the reliance on reserves, won’t be available for the upcoming fiscal year.
To deal with the uncertainty of its budget projections—dependent as they were on the pace of recovery from the pandemic—the city agreed to submit monthly budgetary monitoring reports to its state oversight agency, the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA).
For the full chapter on government, download the full report.
Public health took center stage in Philadelphia and around the world in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic raged on.
During the year, nearly 2,500 Philadelphia residents died from the virus—the death toll surpassed 3,000 in February 2021—and more than 96,000 tested positive. To lower transmission rates, the city started requiring people to wear masks in June and reported that a majority complied with that mandate in both indoor and outdoor settings in the final months of 2020.
In addition to COVID-19, Philadelphians also contended with major health concerns that were present prior to the pandemic. One was opioids. In 2020, an estimated 1,200 fatal overdoses occurred in the city, near 2017’s record high and the fourth straight year in which the number exceeded 1,100. And Black Philadelphians continued to have higher rates of chronic conditions, lower life expectancy, and higher infant mortality rates than White residents.
For the full chapter on health, download the full report.
In a challenging year, the housing market was a bright spot in Philadelphia.
The city issued 58% more residential building permits in 2020 than in 2019, a show of developers’ confidence in the local housing market.
Although home sales dropped to approximately the same total as in 2016, the median home sale price was the highest on record, at $204,500, with the bulk of sales occurring in the final six months of the year—after the pandemic’s impact had become clear.
For renters, eviction filings plunged after a temporary moratorium was established in the spring, in the wake of the COVID-19 shutdown. Almost 52% of renters spent 30% or more of their income on rent and utilities, the highest rate among the comparison cities.
For the full chapter on housing, download the full report.
Jobs and the Economy
As in much of the country, COVID-19 caused sudden and severe damage to Philadelphia’s economy in 2020.
On an annual basis, the number of jobs in the city declined by more than 40,000 from 2019 to 2020, though at times that figure was down almost 100,000. The local unemployment rate averaged 12.2% for the year after peaking at more than 18% during the summer months. Although both the jobs and unemployment numbers improved late in the year, both were far worse than in much of the previous decade.
The leisure and hospitality sector was hit hardest; a third of its jobs disappeared in 2020. Many of these businesses were temporarily shuttered during the early wave of the pandemic as a result of the mayor’s stay-at-home order.
For the full chapter on jobs and the economy, download the full report.
In 2020, Philadelphia had 499 homicides—the most since the early 1990s—up 40% from the previous year and more than twice the historic low recorded in 2013.
Even with this sharp increase, major crimes—a category that includes rape, assault, and robbery, as well as homicide, burglary, car theft, and other property crimes—declined by nearly 5%. Violent crimes remained essentially unchanged from 2019, with more than 15,000 incidents in 2020.
During and after the civil unrest in May and June sparked by the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, some groups called for “defunding” the police or redirecting spending to other services, although a Pew poll found that only 14% of Philadelphians said the city had too many officers. The police department received widespread criticism for using tear gas in dealing with the unrest.
For the full chapter on public safety, download the full report.
Transportation, Infrastructure, and the Environment
Local, regional, national, and international transportation was severely curtailed in 2020 after governments told residents to stay home.
Local mass transit use dropped sharply in 2020; through the 12 months ending June 30—which included only the first few months of the pandemic restrictions—ridership on SEPTA’s City Transit Division was down almost 24% from the prior year. Use of PATCO’s high-speed line declined more than 60% for the entire year. Air travel was down substantially, too: The number of passengers at Philadelphia International Airport fell 64%, and the number of international passengers dropped 83%.
This pandemic-related decline in travel may have also contributed to improved air quality; Philadelphia had only five days with unhealthy air in 2020, the fewest in the past decade and down sharply from 28 in 2012.
For the full chapter on transportation, infrastructure, and the environment, download the full report.