Notes from the President: Comparisons (Spring 2010 Trust Magazine)

Notes from the President: Comparisons (Spring 2010 Trust Magazine)

By Rebecca W. Rimel
President and Chief Executive Officer

Message from the President, Trust, Spring 2010:

Ed Koch, New York City mayor during the 1980s, wasn't afraid of comparisons. “How am I doing?” he would ask, inviting anybody to judge his performance against his predecessors', his own accomplishments or his campaign promises. Comparisons may make us feel competitive or insecure, but, done well and with the right motives, they can provide useful information about strengths, weaknesses and how people or organizations stack up against their peers.

Comparisons play heavily in the work featured in this edition of Trust. In assessing the strength of the nascent “green” economy in America, staff from the Pew Center on the States and the Pew Environment Group concluded that the measure that mattered most was a comparison between the growth of green jobs over the decade preceding the current recession and the growth of jobs more generally. In the groundbreaking Clean Energy Economy: Repowering Jobs, Businesses and Investments Across America, they defined their terms conservatively, counting only verifiable businesses and jobs—a labor-intensive effort. The result: The number of jobs in this emerging corner of the economy grew nearly two and a half times faster than overall jobs between 1998 and 2007.

Progress was not uniform across the nation, however, and the authors of the report made sure that policy makers and journalists in each state could easily measure their state's standing against 49 others. Colorado, Oregon and Tennessee were early winners, and the governors of these and other states that did well touted the findings. Others vowed to do better in the future. In a year with little encouraging economic news, the report highlighted an area that seems ripe for growth. Future research will determine whether America is seizing that opportunity—and which states seem to have the upper hand.

Comparisons also played an important role in the work of the Pew Safe Credit Cards Project, which, in 2007, launched an effort, in partnership with the Sandler Foundation, to address growing concerns about unfair practices in the credit card industry and promote responsible management of debt. The project examined all general-purpose consumer credit cards offered online by the largest 12 issuers, which control more than 88 percent of credit card debt in America. Every single card—400 in all—contained one or more practices that the nation's central bank, the U.S. Federal Reserve, had classified as “unfair or deceptive.”

The initiative's team also met with credit card providers and consumer groups to identify mutually acceptable ways to improve the card agreements. The result was the Pew Safe Credit Card Standards, many of which became part of the Credit CARD Act of 2009.

The project continued to track the industry's actions in the period between the signing of the law last May and 2010, when most of its terms take effect. Unfortunately, this research produced no exemplars. Across the board, unfair practices were endemic, with some becoming even more widespread. Thus, the best hope in this arena appears to lie not with competitive pressure to raise standards, but with a new law that requires companies to treat consumers more fairly.

Over the years, Pew periodically commissioned reports to illuminate challenges facing Philadelphia, our hometown. Interest in the findings was often high and, given the research orientation of so much of our national work, we were encouraged to do more. In late 2008 we created an in-house unit, the Philadelphia Research Initiative, which is tasked with producing a steady stream of reports on matters of local import.

In just over a year, the project has produced a graphics-rich “state of the city” report that gauges civic health broadly and drills deep on specific issues—from the city's preparations for the 2010 census to how it is wrestling with a recession-induced fiscal crisis. One feature of virtually all the reports to date is comparisons with peer cities. How does Philadelphia's poverty rate, crime statistics or educational attainment compare against other major American cities? How many other cities decided on a major tax increase to forestall significant cuts in services? How do pension and health benefits of city workers look against those of workers in Chicago or Atlanta or Baltimore?

This kind of benchmarking gives citizens and decision makers a yardstick for determining how well or poorly the city is doing. In effect, we're asking Ed Koch's memorable question on behalf of the city itself. While the primary motive behind these comparisons is to help Philadelphia wrestle with its challenges, we have been happily surprised to find the reports getting a lot of attention in the comparison cities. It turns out the folks in Pittsburgh, Phoenix and Boston are just as interested as Philadelphians in seeing how they measure up.

Finally, a few words to honor a man of words. Marshall Ledger is Trust's founding editor, and he retires with this issue. Since 1998, he has gathered top-notch writers, artists, photographers and designers, orchestrating these creative elements to produce this magazine. And how well it has told Pew's story! Trust is accurate, attractive and, especially, reader-friendly—because Marshall is, at heart, a “reader's editor.” Since Pew deals with major issues of our time, engaged readers will do their own comparisons in deciding which publications to read. Marshall has always wanted you to choose Trust, and, year in and year out, he has given you good reason to do so.

Read more about Pew's work in the Spring 2010 issue of Trust magazine (PDF).