At the start of 2020, Philadelphia continued to be largely a tale of success, expanding upon years of economic progress and demographic change. But the rise in violent crime had become a central element in the city’s story, with the potential to change Philadelphia’s positive overall trajectory—especially when combined with its ongoing challenge of high poverty.
How the picture will change in the wake of the far-reaching impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic remains to be seen. Through 2019, Philadelphia remained a city where people wanted to live, work, and visit. Its population rose for the 13th consecutive year, albeit marginally, reaching 1,584,064. That’s a strong gain of more than 95,000 since 2006, when the population bottomed out after a half-century of decline—but still nowhere near the peak of more than 2 million in 1950.
The share of Philadelphians with a college degree has also grown in recent years—reaching 30.9 percent overall and 45.1 percent among adults ages 25-34, making the city more attractive to would-be employers.
In concert with rising educational attainment, the local economy continued to expand until the pandemic arrived. In 2019, the job count stood at 741,200, the most since 1990, a rise that came despite the sudden closures of two large, long-standing private employers: Hahnemann University Hospital and the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery. Key economic sectors were also flourishing, including the education, medical, and leisure and hospitality industries. And the city’s median household income of $46,116—though still lagging behind other U.S. cities—rose by a healthy margin in the past few years.
In addition, unemployment in 2019 was historically low at 5.2 percent, although it remained higher than the rates in the rest of the metropolitan area, many other cities, and the nation as a whole. In recent years, the drop in Philadelphia’s unemployment rate and the increase in the number of jobs have both come at a faster pace than they have nationally, underscoring the city’s economic strength.
This year, however, as a massive public health emergency threatens all of that, the rise in violent crime is adding to the city’s woes.
In Philadelphia, major crimes increased marginally for the second year in a row in 2019, after falling in each of the previous seven years. But violent crimes rose 7.2 percent, the first upsurge since 2015.
And the number of homicides climbed to 356 in 2019, or nearly one per day, a figure essentially unchanged from the previous year but up nearly 45 percent since 2013. In the early months of 2020, the homicide rate was on track to be even higher.
The rise in crime comes at a time when concern about public safety is already one of the main reasons people move out of Philadelphia, according to a poll conducted by The Pew Charitable Trusts, and when many other cities are seeing a drop in homicides. In 2019, Philadelphia’s rate—measured as the number of homicides per 100,000 residents—was still lower than those in Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland, and Washington. But it was higher than the rate in Chicago, a city that has received a lot of national media attention for its gun violence over the past decade.
Philadelphia officials have attributed the increase in homicides, in part, to opioid misuse, which has affected neighborhoods throughout the city and is itself a significant cause of death in Philadelphia. Indeed, preliminary numbers suggest that approximately 1,100 drug overdose deaths occurred in 2019 (about as many as in 2018), a figure more than three times greater than the homicide total and still among the largest in the nation on a per capita basis.
The backdrop to much of this, of course, is Philadelphia’s enduring challenge with entrenched poverty, which city officials have long seen as Philadelphia’s core problem. At 24.5 percent, the share of city households living below the federal poverty line has decreased slightly from previous years but remains the highest of the 10 largest U.S. cities. And the nearly 380,000 Philadelphians living in poverty serve as a sobering reminder of the magnitude of the situation.
For more than a decade, Philadelphia has netted steady gains in jobs and population—in a way that hasn’t happened since the 1940s. But the concerns over public safety could endanger that progress. And any potential effects of the current COVID-19 situation are still unknown.