Every spring since 2009, the Pew Charitable Trusts has gathered data from numerous sources for our “State of the City” report on Philadelphia. But this year, because of COVID-19, the findings must be seen in a different light.
The numbers we’ve assembled this year can only serve as a reminder of how the city was doing before the pandemic arrived. But that reminder is useful, perhaps even essential, because it helps focus attention on the long-standing issues that await Philadelphia once the current situation ends — issues including poverty, jobs, and crime.
When 2020 began, as our new report indicates, Philadelphia’s story was largely one of success, building upon years of economic progress and demographic change, albeit against a backdrop of persistently high poverty and a rise in violent crime that has the potential to alter the city’s overall trajectory.
The population rose for the 13th consecutive year in 2019, bringing the net gain to more than 95,000 since the number bottomed out in 2006. The share of Philadelphians with college degrees grew as well, reaching 30.9% overall and 45.1% among adults ages 25-34, making the city more attractive to would-be employers.
And the local economy continued a years-long record of expansion. In 2019, the job count stood at 741,200, the most since 1990, despite the sudden closures of two large, longtime private employers: Hahnemann University Hospital and the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery. Unemployment was historically low at 5.2%, although it was higher than in the rest of the metropolitan area, many other cities, and the nation as a whole.
Key economic sectors were flourishing, including the education, medical, and leisure and hospitality industries. The 2019 data shows that the city’s median household income of $46,116, though still lower than in many other U.S. cities, has risen by a healthy margin in the past few years.
But the threat to public safety was becoming hard to ignore. In 2019, violent crimes rose 7.2%. The number of homicides reached 356 in 2019, or nearly one per day, a figure essentially unchanged from the previous year but up nearly 45% since 2013. And in the early months of 2020, the homicide rate was on track to be even higher.
The rise in crime came at a time when concern about public safety was already one of the main reasons people were leaving Philadelphia, according to a Pew poll, and when many other cities were seeing a drop in homicides. In 2019, Philadelphia’s rate — measured as the number of homicides per 100,000 residents — was lower than those in Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland, and Washington. But it was higher than the rate in Chicago, a city that has received national media attention for its gun violence over the past decade.
Philadelphia officials had attributed the increase in homicides in part to opioid misuse, which has affected neighborhoods throughout the city, and put a strain on the health-care system even before COVID-19 hit. 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 city’s homicide total, and still among the largest in the nation on a per capita basis.
The context for much of this, of course, is Philadelphia’s enduring challenge with entrenched poverty, which city officials have long seen as Philadelphia’s core problem. Nearly 380,000 Philadelphians live below the poverty line. At 24.5%, 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.
After the pandemic wanes and the human and financial tolls have been recorded, the city may face new questions about these familiar topics. Will the city stop growing? Will the spike in unemployment be a short-term setback or a long-term problem? Will the rise in homicides continue — or will Philadelphia be a less violent place when the pandemic ends? What will happen to those living at or near the poverty line? Will the poverty rate rise?
In normal times, we’d look to the recent past to offer answers. But in 2020, and perhaps even beyond, that approach may no longer work.
Larry Eichel is a senior adviser and Jason Hachadorian is a senior associate with the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia research and policy initiative. Learn more about Pew’s 2020 “State of the City” report and other research at pewtrusts.org/philaresearch.