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In Philly, are we comfortable with doing ‘just okay’? | Editorial

Considering the deeply entrenched problems that persist in Philadelphia, it’s worth asking.

FILE- In this June 1, 2018 file photo ironworkers construct a commercial and residential building in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
FILE- In this June 1, 2018 file photo ironworkers construct a commercial and residential building in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)Read moreMatt Rourke / AP

When will Philadelphia’s progress stop being a “yes, but” situation?

The bottom line of two reports marking the state of Philadelphia and its progress toward growth is positive: Population is up, graduation rates are up, home values have risen, a construction boom is underway, and unemployment and crime rates have both declined.

As usual, there is a “but” — actually, many buts. A report issued Wednesday by the Chamber of Commerce points out that most of these improvements are real, but they fall behind more robust improvement in other cities. The report is part of the chamber’s annual “Roadmap for Growth” work; it compares metrics over a four-year period, comparing growth against nine other cities.

The Pew report is the 10th in a series of annual reports from the Philadelphia Research Initiative. Both offer useful comparisons with other cities, and with the state of the city over a period of a decade.

Key highlights: The city’s population is growing — a particularly sensitive barometer in the face of decades of decline. The city’s population has grown 2.1 percent over the last seven years. But that growth is ninth among 10 cities; Charlotte grew 9.1 percent in the same period. And while Philadelphia’s median income is growing, at 3.9 percent, it also lags behind other cities; Washington’s income rose 12.1 percent. And in other mixed messages, while unemployment declined, our unemployment rate still is above the national average.

Pew’s findings echo many of those of the chamber’s, though it provides a deeper look at some of the key social challenges of the city — notably, poverty and the public-health crisis of opioids, which is not just taking lives, but is responsible for a spike in the homeless population, a number that has nearly tripled from 2014 to 2018.

The ultimate question is what we do with all this data and statistics? Cities like ours are complex systems, hard to reduce to a single convenient narrative. We need a clear-eyed view of our problems so we can set priorities. But considering the deeply entrenched problems that persist, it’s also worth asking: Are we setting the bar too low? Are we comfortable with doing “just OK” and willing to settle for incremental improvements?

Elections can help answer those questions. This May’s primary offer voters a chance to reelect the current mayor or identify a new contender — but it also offers a crowded field of City Council contenders. Those Council races could be key to new approaches to our problems. The chamber’s report provides a snapshot of the state of the city’s council districts and those numbers tell another kind of story: It points out the disparity between the 10th District, with a 12.3 percent poverty rate, and the 7th, with a poverty rate of 42 percent. The chamber also compares building permits issued, new business licenses, and other key metrics in each district that should provide a more targeted approach to improving the city as a whole.

The city can’t rise unless every neighborhood rises. And the city won’t progress meaningfully until we start demanding that it should.