Philadelphia Metropolis


Spectacular Growth

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Phila Map 2.jpgCity fathers had a celebratory moment recently when the official count of the 2010 U.S. Census was released, showing that Philadelphia's population actually rose in the last 10 years. They had a right to cheer.

It was the first time in 60 years that Philadelphia's population did not go down. Total population stands are 1,526,000 -- up 8,456 since 2000.

A modest gain but, hey, still a gain.

"Spectacular!" said Mayor Nutter, who shook his election-year pompoms at a City Hall news conference. "What this is really about is folks recognizing this city is moving in the right direction."

(Until the November election, it looks as if we will be fated to have a mayor who ends all his sentences in exclamation points.)

While people were applauding what happened, scant attention was paid to why it happened.

"We're the city of the future!" was Nutter's explanation. "People can be anywhere. They are choosing to live in Philadelphia."

That's his theory.  Let me tell you mine.

First, let's look at some factors that did not contribute:

-- Philadelphia did not grow because a large number of middle-class, affluent people chose to move into the city.  With the exception of Center City and environs (population 150,000), which did see real growth in wealth and population, the rest of the city was stagnant -- at best.  Median household income even went down, when compared to inflation.  To put it another way, we may be a slightly bigger city, but we are not a wealthier city. One out of four Philadelphians live below the poverty line, a five-percent increase over 2000.

-- Philadelphia did not grow because of an influx of whites and blacks, the two predominant racial groups. Over the decade, the city's white population declined by 13 percent; the number of blacks went down by two percent.  This is due partly to declining birth rates. Some is due to out-migration. Alas, we cannot tag each departee to see if they move to the suburbs, Florida, a retirement home or the cemetery, but the rule of thumb is that people who move out of a city usually do it for two reasons: their jobs send them elsewhere or they can afford to exit. They tend to be middle class and employed.  Look at the rise in the black population in inner-ring suburbs over the last 10 years as an indicator. A lot of those folks are coming from Philly.

The main reason Philadelphia grew was a significant increase in the population of two groups: Asians and Latinos.

We must step 20 years to take a measure of this change.  In 1990, there were 95,000 Latinos in the city -- equal to six percent of the total population.  Today, there are 188,000 -- equal to 12 percent.

Twenty years ago, there were 48,000 Asians living in Philadelphia. By 2010, that number had grown to 95,000, a six percent share of the total population.

This is just the latest chapter in an old American story.  Cities are the entry ports for immigrants and Philadelphia has hosted a progression of them since its founding.

Thirty years ago in Philadelphia, Asian was synonymous with Chinese and the Asian population was centered in Chinatown.  No more.  Today, they are divided into three,  groups: Chinese (29%); Southeast Asians (Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, etc. at 28%) and South Asian (Indian, Pakistani, etc at 25%).

The remaining 18 percent include Koreans (5%) and Filipinos (5%).

When it comes to economics, the Asians exhibit a balance rarely seen among new groups: About half have annual household incomes at or below the citywide average ($37,000) and half are above it.  A dot-map would show that while there is still a heavy concentration in Chinatown, they are scattered throughout the city, with sizeable settlements in South Philadelphia and the lower Northeast.

The Latino population, which grew by 58,000 during the decade, is a different story. Most of them are Puerto Rican (67%), followed by Mexicans (9%) and Dominicans (6%), with the rest from various countries in Central and South America.

How much the Latino growth spurt is due to immigration is hard to say, but it appears that half is due to new arrivals and half due to a high Latino birth rate.

Economically, the Latino population is a basket case.  Median household income is around $23,000 a year -- about 40 percent lower than the citywide average.  Four out of 10 Latinos live below the poverty line. There are middle class Latinos, but not enough of them-- only one out of four have household incomes over $50,000.

The majority of Latinos are poor and many of them are desperately poor.

As this week's Cover Story (click to read: The Lost Generation) reveals, along with poverty comes the problems associated with being an urban underclass: a high drop-out rate; a high rate of arrest and conviction; a high incidence of violent acts. 

In other words, the Latinos of today are very much like the Irish who arrived in Philadelphia beginning in the 1840's -- and who caused a great deal of mayhem and civic stress for decades thereafter.

I am allowed to say that because I am Irish.


-- Tom Ferrick















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