The 2012 update to the Philadelphia Research Initiative’s report on major issues facing Philly shows a city in transition — and one that is striving to evolve to meet the familiar challenges it has faced for decades.
What may be the most promising statistic highlighted in the report, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, reflects a trend that has been witnessed in cities nationwide: In a tough economic climate, many young adults are staying in the city, foregoing buying homes in the suburbs to remain mortgage-free.
Between 2000 and 2010, Philadelphia’s population of adults age 20-34 rose considerably, even while nationwide the age group accounted for a smaller percentage of the total U.S. population.
What remains to be seen is whether Philadelphia can retain this population as these young adults age, marry and start families. The job availability and quality of schools in Philadelphia may prove to be important determining factors as young families decide whether the city is an attractive place to stay.
On the education front, faced with significant losses in enrollment and fiscal woes, the Philadelphia public school system has released plans for a major overhaul that has made national headlines.
Between the 2010 and 2011 school years, enrollment fell 5 percent in district schools and 6 percent in archdiocesan schools, while enrollment in charter schools continued its steady rise.
In the spring, the Philadelphia School District’s School Reform Commission announced plans for a radical restructuring of its failing system: The district would close a whopping 40 schools in the next year, group the remaining schools into “achievement networks” to be managed by public or private groups and would shrink its central office to 200 employees.
The achievement network system — essentially, a business plan to privatize services within the district — mimics an increasingly popular entrepreneurial approach to education: The charter school model.
Enrollment in Philadelphia charter schools (red) versus traditional Catholic schools (green).
However, this is not the first time that Philadelphia has seen this kind of strategy. Ten years ago, the state dismantled the Philadelphia school board and put in its place a commission to organize the handing over of public schools to private corporations, non-profits and local universities for management. A study by Research for Action found that this move did not lead to any measurable gains in the academic performances of students in Philadelphia.
Though the new plan has triggered public outcry, the Commission frames the plan as a necessary step to fix a system already in collapse.
On a more positive note for the city, Philadelphia has experienced some growth in the job and real estate sectors: In 2011, the city added about 2,100 jobs and residential construction permits rose 58 percent, the first appreciable rise since the recession hit. Unemployment rates also fell a full percentage point, from 11.5 percent to 10.5 percent, between 2010 and 2011.
In 2011, Philly issued 28 percent more residential construction permits than in the previous year, the first appreciable rise since the recession hit.
Though job growth is up and unemployment is down, poverty and crime continue to plague the city. The percentage of Philadelphians living in poverty rose from 25 percent in 2009 to 26.7 percent in 2010 — one of the highest percentages among all major U.S. cities. And while total crime fell 1.4 percent in 2011, major crime — including burglary, theft and violent crimes — rose 2 percent. The number of homicides also increased, making Philadelphia’s homicide rate the highest of America’s 10 biggest cities for yet another year.
When polled, 75 percent of Philadelphians responded that they were “somewhat concerned” or “very concerned” about the city’s crime rate.
Philly made headlines January when the city experienced 34 homicides in a single month, prompting Mayor Michael Nutter to unveil a set of crime fighting strategies, including $20,000 rewards for information solving a homicide, $500 rewards for locating illegal guns, increased funding for a witness assistance program and a greater police presence.
Not one to mince words, Nutter said at a press conference, “To every criminal out there: I just put a $20,000 bounty on your head.”
The Philadelphia Police Department has explored a number of different crime fighting strategies in the past years, including the ramping of its stop-and-frisk program in 2007 to help remove illegal guns off the streets. Between 2007 and 2009, the number of pedestrian stops nearly doubled — from 136,711 in 2007 to 253,276 in 2009. The city was forced to readdress its policies when civil rights lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit against the city, alleging that police officers were disproportionately stopping African-American and Hispanic men without adequate cause.
In response to the lawsuit, city officials agreed to enact new training protocols, have the program monitored by an independent organization and use an electronic database to track the legality of the stops.
Though it may be agreed that important strides have been made in reforming the city’s stop-and-frisk procedures, there is frustration abound as Philadelphia’s crime rates continue to climb.
The updated report on Philly clearly shows a city that has a lot of work ahead of it. But for a final statistic: When polled, most Philadelphians expressed that they thought the city would improve in the next five years — by a nearly 3-1 margin.
According to its citizens, Philadelphia is up to the job.