Objectively speaking, Philadelphia is making progress as a whole. The school district has doubled the number of high-performing schools and halved the number of low-performing schools; overall crime is down 11 percent in the past four years while the jail population is getting smaller; the region is adding jobs and outpacing the national trend; and major companies like Comcast have made Philadelphia their home.
But most voters will not be satisfied with the city’s advancements when they go to polls on May 21 — that’s one takeaway from The Inquirer and SurveyUSA poll of 865 voters. Overall, voters don’t feel that the city’s progress is impacting their lives: only 21 percent of voters responded that they are better off today and only 19 percent of voters said that their neighborhood is better off than they were four years ago. In fact, more voters said they were worse off — 29 percent said they themselves are and 35 percent said their neighborhood is worse off.
It is hard to reconcile the experience of voters living in Philadelphia with the stats and figures that are showing progress.
One very concrete area of disagreement is the performance of public schools. Five times as many voters think that Philadelphia public school are getting worse — 56 percent — than those who think the schools are getting better — 11 percent. That is in the face a three consecutive years in which school performance has been increasing.
There could be many reasons for this disconnect between the objective and the subjective: Philadelphians are so used to complaining about things that don’t work that when they do work, they don’t know how to stop complaining. Another reason for the disconnect could be that change, while real, is just not big enough and fast enough for people to feel it.
In the medical world there is a differentiation between change that can be demonstrated statistically and change that actually has a meaningful clinical implication. A medication could be considered statistically effective because it prolongs life, but if all the patient gets is a few more hours, it might not be considered a meaningful change.
Similarly, an 11 percent reduction in overall crime might just not be enough to make residents of some neighborhoods feel safe — not when the number of homicides has increased by 25 percent in the same period. A three-year improvement in schools performance is impressive, but when the overall performance is only 42 percent, that is probably not satisfactory for many parents.
The bottom line: The issues that the city is facing are larger than the progress that we are making.
The story of Philadelphia is often referred to as a tale of two cities: rich and poor, privileged and disadvantaged, progressive and backward. But there’s another contrast that marks the divide in the city: the positive progress that is being made contrasting the grim overall state of the poorest large city in America.
The progress of the city and the attitude of voters are not mutually exclusive. There’s a lesson here, especially for candidates in an election year: People live in the present, not in the overall statistical trend.