After some eight decades of Republican governance, Philadelphia in 1952 elected Democrat Joseph Clark Jr. as its mayor; it has continued to elect only Democrats to that office ever since.
The 1950s in Philly were a time of surging affluence and prosperity, emblematized by a postwar consumer spending boom on such highly desired technological innovations as washing machines, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, televisions, and automobiles. Numerous shopping centers were built to meet the needs and appetites of local consumers, and between 1945 and 1960 the number of cars registered in the city doubled to half-a-million. During World War II, shipbuilding, which had been one of Philadelphia’s key industries for more than 200 years, took on even greater importance. The Philadelphia Navy Yard at that time employed more than 50,000 workers and was responsible for the construction of many war ships, torpedo boats, aircraft carriers, and most notably, the great battleships New Jersey and Wisconsin. In this climate of progress and enterprise, Philadelphia’s blue-collar workers enjoyed steady, dependable employment and were paid higher wages than average Americans had ever previously earned. While about one-eighth of the city’s population lived in poverty, “a clear majority,” writes Frederic Miller—author of the book Philadelphia Story—“shared in the prosperity of the decade.”
The Great Migration that brought so many Southern blacks to America’s Northern cities between 1940 and 1970 certainly made itself felt in Philadelphia. During those three decades, the city’s black population skyrocketed from roughly 251,000 to 654,000. With the arrival of so many black newcomers, parts of Philadelphia experienced growing racial tensions. White homeowners, for instance, reacted angrily toward proposed zoning changes designed to accommodate public housing in residential neighborhoods, and to civil-rights advocates’ proposals for “fair housing” regulations. The prominent local activist Cecil B. Moore, dissatisfied with the pace of residential desegregation, derided Northeast Philadelphia as a “lily-white island” in 1964.
In August of that same year, tensions between police and North Philadelphia’s black community boiled over in the form of the Columbia Avenue Riot, resulting in hundreds of injuries, arrests, and looted businesses, many of which would never again reopen their doors. According to a Temple University analysis, “contemporaries and historians alike agree” that riots were, at least in part, “actually a modern-day pogrom driven by [black] anti-Semitism,” as evidenced by the looting of many Jewish-owned businesses.
In the wake of the riots, Philly’s Democratic leaders tried to address their city’s racial tensions by passing mandates for compulsory busing and desegregation. But these measures only exacerbated existing animosities between whites and blacks.
Yet another Democrat measure designed to promote racial justice was the so-called Philadelphia Plan of 1967, a federal affirmative-action initiative requiring government contractors to meet numerical hiring quotas for blacks in each of the skilled trades in Philadelphia’s construction-industry projects. The Comptroller General of the United States subsequently declared the plan illegal, and a revised Philadelphia Plan was issued in 1969 under the Nixon Administration.
A noteworthy development occurred in 1976 when Mayor Frank Rizzo (1972-80)—who had recently won re-election under the slogan, “He held the line on taxes”—suddenly proposed a 30% hike in the city wage tax as a means of closing Philadelphia’s $100 million budget deficit.
Since the end of Rizzo’s two terms in office, Phily voters have elected a string of additional Democrat mayors including William J. Greene III (1980-84), W. Wilson Goode (the city’s first black mayor, 1984-92), Ed Rendell (1992-2000), John Street (2000-08), and Michael Nutter (2008-present). Indeed, Philadelphia appears to have achieved the status of a permanent Democratic stronghold. Among the city’s residents today, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a six-to-one margin. In the 2004, 2008, and 2012 presidential elections, Philly voters cast their ballots for the Democratic candidate at rates ranging from 83% to 95%. In the 2012 election, Republican Mitt Romney did not receive a single vote in 59 separate districts clustered in West and North Philadelphia.
After 62 consecutive years of Democratic governance, Philadelphians today find themselves saddled with the second-highest overall tax burden of any big-city dwellers in America. For instance, the city imposes at least 17 different taxes on its residents and business owners, over and above other local fees and licenses. As of 2011, Philly’s commercial property taxes were the fourth-highest in the United States. Just six of the 30 largest cities in the U.S. compel their residents to pay property, sales, and income taxes, and Philadelphia is one of them. Moreover, Philadelphia’s City Wage Tax—levied on people who live or work therein—is a hefty 3.928% for residents and 3.4985% for non-residents.
Cumulatively, all these taxes make Philadelphia highly unattractive to people seeking a place where they can start a family or a business. In an analysis comparing the 30 largest metropolitan areas in the United States in terms of a variety of key metrics—e.g., small-business job growth, industry variety, hours worked, average wages for new hires, unemployment rate, and cost of living—Cardhub.com concludes that Philadelphia is among the 10 least desirable places to live or work. Federal labor statistics show that Philly has lost about 28% of its jobs since 1970, and Wharton economist and tax expert Robert Inman has demonstrated conclusively that much of this decrease is due to the city’s high taxes on wages and businesses.
But oppressive though they are, Philadelphia’s high taxes have proven to be incapable of raising enough revenue to cover the city’s operating expenses. In large measure this is due to the fact that, dating back to the 1950s, Philadelphia’s political leaders have promised unsustainably lavish benefits to the city’s public workers—causing Philly’s unfunded liabilities to grow to unmanageable levels. Almost all of the costs of the city’s massive public-worker pension plan, moreover, are covered by taxpayers in the private sector, as Philadelphia’s non-uniformed public workers contribute a mere 1.94% of their paychecks to their own pension funds—well below the national public-sector average of more than 5%, or Pennsylvania’s statewide public-sector average of 6.5%.
Outrageous pension benefits to retired public-school employees in particular have had a corrosive effect on the city’s finances. In 2013 alone, the Philly school system was facing a projected $304 million budget shortfall; this led to numerous school closures and staff layoffs. That same year, city officials projected a five-year, $1.35 billion school-budget deficit.
With $8.75 billion in outstanding debt and a pension system whose obligations are funded only to a level of 47.6%, Philadelphia currently has the lowest credit rating among America’s five most populous cities. According to a recent report from the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, Philly’s pension-fund payments and debt service consumed 6.7% of the city’s general-fund budget back in 2001. By 2016, that figure is expected to reach 16.5%.
Philadelphia’s overall financial malaise is a macrocosm of the dire straits in which so many of its individual residents currently find themselves. Indeed, Philadelphians have a per capita income of $21,946 (approximately 22% below the national average), a median household income of $37,016 (30% below the national median), and a poverty rate of 28.4%. Joblessness is a major problem in the city as well. Between 2002 and 2012, employment in Philadelphia declined precipitously in a number of fields: Manufacturing jobs decreased by 38%, financial-sector jobs fell by 21%, and mining and construction jobs declined by 20%. In 2012, Philadelphia’s unemployment rate was nearly 1.4 times higher than the national average.
Yet another source of angst for Philadelphians is the highly ineffective public school system that gobbles up so many millions of their tax dollars each year. Indeed the School District of Philadelphia spends close to $16,000 on the education of each K-12 pupil in the city—at least 50% more than the national average. Yet student performance in Philly is abysmal. Consider, for instance, that in 2013:
In recent years, the on-time, four-year graduation rate of students attending Philadelphia public high schools has ranged between 52% and 64%. But even those students who do manage to graduate are, for the most part, inadequately prepared for college-level academics. Eighty percent of the city’s eleventh-graders read below grade level, and 85% cannot do grade-level math. A ten-year longitudinal study that tracked the progress of Philadelphia students who entered public high schools in 1999, found that only 10% of them had earned either a two-year or four-year college degree a decade later.
Regardless of these pitiable statistics, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers—strongly aligned with Democratic Party politics and ideology—unwaveringly opposes any and every call for the implementation of school voucher programs, on grounds that they would “sipho[n] dwindling funding from cash-strapped public schools.”
Sadly, Philadelphia’s problems are not limited to poverty, unemployment, and a school system in shambles. The city is also plagued by a violent crime rate that is 3.2 times the national average, including 4.5 times the national average for murder, twice the national average for rapes, 4.7 times the national average for robberies, and 2.4 times the national average for assaults. Among America’s 10 largest cities, Philadelphia has the highest rate of homicide. Some 80% of murder victims are African Americans, almost all of them killed by other blacks.
The intractable economic and social problems afflicting Philadelphia have caused many people to seek out greener pastures elsewhere. Between 1960 and 2021, the city’s population shrank by more than 450,000, from 2 million to about 1.576 million. At the present time, there are no fewer than 40,000 abandoned properties within its confines.
This piece was posted in May 2014.