The State of Which City?

Commentary by Solomon Jones

By Solomonn Jones | AxisPhilly.org
|  Friday, Apr 26, 2013  |  Updated 11:41 AM EDT
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The State of Which City?

"Freedom" an outdoor sculpture by Zenos Frudakis, located at 1600 Vine Street.

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Philadelphia’s economic boundaries are much more significant than its physical ones. That’s why North Philadelphians experience the city in ways that denizens of Rittenhouse Square don’t. The boundaries — so brightly drawn in some places that the very air seems different — make it difficult to accurately define the city as a whole. But for each of the past five years, the Pew Charitable Trusts has tried to do so.

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In its latest study, “Philadelphia 2013: State of the City,” Pew has identified Philadelphia as “a test case for a new theory on how cities develop in 21st century America.” That new theory holds that quality of life is the key element for improving a city’s prospects by attracting young, educated professionals. Philadelphia has done well among that group. The city’s 60,000-person population jump since 2006 can be accounted for by the increase in 20-to-34 year olds, and 37.5 percent of the city’s 25-to-34 year olds have bachelor’s degrees or higher, the study says. That’s reason for celebration.

But within the study’s pages are numbers that refer to another set of youth: statistics that should give all of us pause. Nineteen percent of Philadelphians never graduated from high school, 28 percent of Philadelphians live in poverty, and in the past year, 65 percent of Philadelphia’s babies were born to unmarried women. What do those numbers mean for everyday Philadelphians? They mean that while we must celebrate our influx of educated young people, we must also be prepared to deal with the young people who are starting at a disadvantage. And we must be prepared to do so right now.

In an interview, Larry Eichel, project director of the Philadelphia Research Initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said the report produced many positives, including the fact that Philadelphia is now benefitting from national trends such as the movement of young professionals into cities. But the other statistics uncovered by the report indicate that Philadelphia also faces persistent problems.

“The city still has this huge number of poor people and that hasn’t changed,” Eichel said. “These positive things have come along and the long term negatives are still here.”

The long-term negatives, like the city’s 28 percent poverty rate, show no sign of abating. In fact, if the numbers revealed in the Pew report are any indication, Philadelphia’s long-term negatives could very well get worse. For instance, the 65 percent of Philadelphia’s children born to single mothers are four times more likely to be impoverished than children born to married couples. The 19 percent of Philadelphians who are high school dropouts are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than college graduates. And if those statistics hold true in the future, Philadelphia’s 28 percent poverty rate is likely to grow over time, and to grow exponentially.

Whether it grows will depend on choices. It will depend on what we as a city decide to invest in young people. It will depend on what parents are prepared to sacrifice. And perhaps most important, it will depend on the decisions made by young people themselves. Without question, our youth will encounter role models as they make those choices. The question is: which role models will they trust?

In a city where 19 percent of residents are high school dropouts, children born into impoverished communities will encounter those who have already made the decision to quit school. If they see such people as role models and decide to follow suit, a study by the U.S. Dept. of Education indicates that those children will face dire consequences. They will be more likely to be unemployed, earn lower wages, have higher rates of public assistance, be more likely to be single parents, and have children at a younger age. They will be 3.5 times more likely than high school graduates to be imprisoned at some point. And in Philadelphia, according to District Attorney Seth Williams, being a high school dropout makes one more likely to be either the perpetrator or the victim of gun violence.

Why does it matter? It matters because we pay the court and prison costs associated with that violence. It matters because families pay the emotional costs of losing their children to the streets. It matters because our city loses real human potential. Those costs could be avoided if we could keep those young people in school.

But with the school district in dire financial straits and children born into fragmented families, pushing education will necessarily involve more than what students can get from home. It will require the assistance of all of us. Given the statistical realities, the stakes are literally life and death. Asked what Philadelphia could do to address that truth, Eichel, who oversaw the production of the Pew report, was pensive.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Those are obviously huge questions. The hope is that somehow the number of jobs in the city will start to grow and that will create new opportunities for lots of people, but that hasn’t happened yet.”

In fact, the report revealed that the unemployment rate in Philadelphia, at 10.7 percent, is nearly 3 points above the national average, and has been above the national average in every year except 2009, when the local and national employment rates were nearly identical. Unemployment is even worse among minorities, according to the latest numbers available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with Latinos facing unemployment rates of 19 percent.

One thing is sure. While the future looks good for the young, educated professionals whose numbers have increased in recent years, the outlook for the impoverished is bleak.

“The number of the young adults was startling to me and a really positive story,” Eichel said. “The other side of that is that the jobs numbers are not positive. It has been flat for a period of time and the unemployment rate is very high. If that continues do those young people stay? They are the key to population growth, and growth in the tax base, which obviously gives the city the ability to deal with these big issues. The city has an opportunity, but can a city keep growing without growing job opportunities?”

The answer, quite simply, is no. But it’s about more than job creation. It’s about Philadelphians intervening in the lives of our youth, because if the statistics indicate anything about Philadelphia’s children, it is this: It will take more than a village to raise them. It will take an entire city.

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