Each year, about 60,000 Philadelphians leave the city — an exodus larger than the entire population of Harrisburg. That statistic is likely to leave many Philadelphians skittish, given the city’s history of dramatic declines in population over the last five or six decades. Especially since the number of people moving out exceeds the number moving in from other parts of the country by 10,000. But there are plenty of reasons to keep calm. The overall city’s population is still growing, thanks to immigration and a birthrate the exceeds the death rate.
In addition, a new report from Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative about who is leaving the city suggests there isn’t one single negative factor driving people out, but rather, a range of reasons. The bottom line is that Philadelphia is not a bad place to live in, and most people didn’t feel that they were forced out.
For white, affluent, and highly educated people (the profile of those moving out on average), Philadelphia could not offer the kind of opportunity that they want. The top reason for their move was a job opportunity. For those with kids, the top reason was better schools.
On the other hand, movers who are black, Hispanic, and have a high school diploma or less say Philadelphia was just not safe enough. The top reason for their move was crime and public safety.
Overall, the majority of movers are happy with their move but also look back fondly at Philadelphia. In other words, if only Philadelphia experienced fewer crimes, could offer more opportunities, and had better schools, maybe they would have stayed.
There are a few lessons for public officials in this report. First, is that the experience of Philadelphians is still drastically different depending on the color of their skin and the amount of cash in their bank account. That is not new, nor is it exclusive to Philadelphia, but it is a pervasive theme in each survey or trend in Philadelphia.
Another lesson is that people don’t think about their lives in terms of policies. Most movers did not mention the soda tax, wage tax, property assessments, or any other policy as their reason to move. They talked about concepts like cost of living, job opportunities, and quality of education. For actual residents, not legislative aides, the forest matters — not the policy trees.
The report also raises questions about geography and gentrification. Some of the city’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods are in zip codes that experienced the most out-migration. It’s unclear whether those movers are gentrifiers who are now in search of better schools for their children, or long-term residents being priced out of the city.
While those breaking up with the city essentially claimed ‘it’s not you, it’s me,’ they also mentioned concrete ways in which Philadelphia can improve. Public safety, education, job opportunities are not just political issues but daily struggles that drive life decisions. They also happen to be areas the city can make changes in order to improve. The city should focus on the reasons that people are moving as a road map to improving life for the residents who are still living here.