Jobs and safety are the top reasons people moved out of Philadelphia over the last several years, according to a first-of-its-kind survey by Pew Charitable Trusts that aimed to pin down why roughly 60,000 residents leave the city every year.

However, when just examining households with school-age children who moved out of the city yet stayed in the region, “better schools” was the No. 1 reason.

Still, Pew found there wasn’t one dominant reason why people leave Philadelphia and most didn’t indicate they were fleeing the city, but rather were searching for new opportunities elsewhere. About 70% of those who moved still said the city is a good or excellent place to live.

“In most cases, it was more a question of people being drawn to something else rather than feeling like they were forced out,” said Larry Eichel, director at Pew’s Philadelphia research initiative.

While the number of people who move out of the city each year is about 10,000 more than the number who move in from other parts of the region or country, Philadelphia’s population has grown every year for the last decade due to an influx of immigrants and births outpacing deaths.

Eichel said the “guts” of the survey was an open-ended question that allowed the 1,000 respondents, who were targeted in late 2018 based on change-of-address information from the U.S. Postal Service, to write as little or as much as they’d like about why they moved out of the city. Many indicated more than one reason. Then, respondents were presented with 13 reasons why people might leave Philadelphia and were asked to rate whether those factored into why they moved, and whether they were a major or a minor reason.

What didn’t get mentioned much, particularly in the open-ended responses: local taxes. The city’s wage tax (3.87% for residents and 3.45% for nonresidents who work in the city) is the highest in the nation and has long been considered a possible factor in driving residents away from the city, but just 6% of survey respondents volunteered the word taxes as a reason why they moved in their open-ended answer. (Asked specifically about “high taxes in Philadelphia,” 22% then said it was a major reason they left.)

Where they moved is related to why

About half of those who moved out of the city stayed within the Philadelphia metropolitan area — 11 counties that include South Jersey — which is similar to findings in a 2016 Pew study that looked at migration trends in and out of the city. That study, which relied on census and IRS data, showed Montgomery County was the most common destination for those who stayed in the region, while New York was the state that received the largest share of migrants outside the metropolitan area.

Respondents to this most recent survey who stayed in the region said they moved out of the city because of schools, public safety, the cost of living, and housing.

Further illustrating the impact of the city’s public school system, three-quarters of families with school-age children sent their kids to traditional public schools as opposed to charter or private schools after they moved. But while living in Philadelphia, fewer than half did.

Those who moved outside the region reported they did so largely for jobs or to be closer to loved ones.

About half of those surveyed moved to a new location within the Philadelphia region, according to the Pew study.
Pew Charitable Trusts
About half of those surveyed moved to a new location within the Philadelphia region, according to the Pew study.

Reasons why they left change based on age, race

Those who moved out of the city over the last several years were disproportionately young and white. While people ages 18 to 34 make up less than a third of the population of the city, they represented half of those who left. And Pew found that while African Americans are the city’s largest racial group, they made up 30% of the movers while whites accounted for 45% of the outflow.

While jobs led the list of reasons for moving out overall and for people younger than 50, that changed as movers aged. People older than 50 who moved were more likely to cite public safety as the top concern, followed by cost of living and neighborhood change. Public safety was also just as important as jobs for black and Hispanic respondents.

One of the strongest predictors of why people left was their level of education. People with a bachelor’s degree or higher were three times as likely to cite jobs as the reason for leaving compared with any other reason. But among those with a high school diploma or less, only 4% cited jobs and nearly a quarter mentioned public safety.

These trends also make sense alongside the data Pew collected about where those who left moved from: Among Philadelphia’s 46 residential zip codes, the top four were in Center City, the northern edges of South Philadelphia, and Roxborough/ Manayunk — all neighborhoods known to attract young professionals.

Neighborhoods that saw the largest number of movers are also known to attract young professionals.
Pew Charitable Trusts
Neighborhoods that saw the largest number of movers are also known to attract young professionals.