I. Philadelphia’s Annual Report Card Reveals Positive and Negative Trends
As much as at any time in recent history, the key gauges of Philadelphia’s overall well-being fall into two distinct categories: economic indicators that are mostly positive—and social measures that are not.
First, the good news: Philadelphia’s economy is headed in the right direction. According to the latest “State of the City” report—a yearly snapshot of the metropolis’s vital signs from Pew’s Philadelphia research initiative—the main economic indicators are positive.
The city had more jobs in 2017 than at any time since 1991. For the second year in a row, the city’s job market outperformed the national average. And the unemployment rate, while still higher than the national average, also continued to drop, from 6.8 to 6.2 percent.
There was promising news in the real estate market, too. Home sales rose for the sixth consecutive year, the highest they’ve been since the end of the 2007 housing boom, with 20,818 sales recorded.
Residential building permits also increased. After two years of decline, the city of Philadelphia issued building permits to construct 3,389 residential units.
Changes in demographics may help explain, at least in part, the housing demand. For the 11th straight year, the city’s population has increased, adding 6 percent—92,153 people—since 2006. The city’s immigrant population continues to rise as well, with about 15 percent of 2017 residents born outside the United States, the highest percentage since 1940.
But while the economy is doing well and the shifting demographics are changing the look and feel of the city, the social indicators reveal a more sobering picture.
Even with the rise in employment and jobs, 26 percent of residents live in poverty, the highest among the nation’s 10 most populous cities. Nearly half of the city’s 400,000 poor residents are considered to be in deep poverty, which means that one adult with two children lives on less than $10,000 a year. “The poverty rate has remained stubbornly high and very difficult to move, even with jobs going up,” says Larry Eichel, director of the Philadelphia research initiative. “And that is very hard to explain.”
A total of 1,217 residents died of drug overdoses in 2017, nearly doubling the number of deaths just three years ago. Most were related to opioid misuse. By comparison, another epidemic, AIDS, claimed 935 lives in Philadelphia at its peak in the mid-’90s. The homicide rate has also crept up. More than 300 people were killed in 2017, the most since 2012, marking an increase of 14 percent in a single year.
“We’re seeing a pretty clear pattern,” Eichel says of this year’s report. “We’ve got a growing economy, changing demographics, and worrisome social trends.”
II. Expanded Dental Care Is Coming to Arizona
Nearly two-thirds of Arizona’s population lives in what the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration calls a dental desert, with nearly 5 million residents unable to easily access routine and preventive dental care, such as filling a cavity or cleaning teeth. But that may be changing.
In May, Arizona joined a growing number of states in authorizing dental therapists. These professionals, akin to physician assistants, provide routine prevention and treatment services and work in a range of settings where a dentist may not be available. Working under the supervision of a dentist, they treat patients in public clinics, community health centers, nursing homes, and schools, and can even set up temporary facilities to visit people who can’t get to a dental office because it’s too far away or they lack insurance and simply can’t afford it.
Arizona Governor Doug Ducey (R) signed a measure that received strong bipartisan support from state lawmakers. “This bill will greatly increase much-needed access to dental care for citizens across the state of Arizona,” says John Grant, who directs Pew’s dental campaign.
With Arizona, seven states now authorize using dental therapists in some capacity. The therapists are commonly employed by private practices in Minnesota, where some dentists who participate in Medicaid can stretch their reimbursement rates further by employing dental therapists, who receive a substantially lower salary.
More than 63 million people in the United States live in areas with dentist shortages, and more than 70 million children and adults who rely on Medicaid have difficulty getting care. A dozen more states are considering incorporating the dental therapist profession in some capacity, and Pew is working to increase their numbers.
III. Increasing Number of U.S. Families Struggle to Pay Rent
In 2016, nearly 43 million households lived in rental housing, up 9.3 million since 2004 and the largest rise since 1970, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. Baby boomers, who drove that earlier rental boom when they were coming of age, are behind the recent spike as well.
Since the 2007–09 downturn, many families have struggled to save for a down payment on a house or have lacked strong enough credit to meet the stricter underwriting standards that Congress put in place.
But writing a monthly rent check has also become difficult for many families. Greater demand for rental housing and a limited supply have driven rents to historic highs. These steep rent increases have outpaced household earnings, meaning that after paying rent, many families must cut back in other areas.
Indeed, the proportion of households with a “rent burden,” defined as spending 30 percent or more of their pretax income on rent, has risen substantially. A Pew report released in April found that in 2015, 38 percent of all renter households fell into this category, up about 19 percent since 2001. The share that were severely rent burdened—spending half or more of their monthly income on rent—increased by 42 percent in this period, to 17 percent. Compared with other renters and homeowners, rent-burdened households have higher eviction rates, increased financial fragility, and wider use of social safety net programs.
More African-American families are rent burdened than white ones—46 percent compared with 34 percent—and the gap between the share of white and African-American households experiencing a severe rent burden widened dramatically between 2001 and 2015, up 66 percent. Households headed by those 65 or older are also more likely to be rent burdened than those with younger household heads.
“The growing number of households struggling to pay rent suggests that a rising share of Americans may be experiencing serious financial fragility,” says Travis Plunkett, senior director of Pew’s family economic security portfolio.
IV. Destructive Fishing Method To Be Prohibited Off West Coast
Bottom trawling will soon be prohibited in about 140,000 square miles of water off the U.S. West Coast, an area roughly twice the size of Washington state. Long practiced in the Pacific Ocean, the fishing method is one of the most destructive to seafloor habitat.
Bottom-trawl vessels use large nets that can badly damage sensitive habitat, including rocky areas, as they are dragged across the ocean floor. Ending bottom trawling will protect some 16,000 square miles of seafloor habitat in a region called the Southern California Bight, as well as many other areas off central and northern California, Oregon, and Washington. Like the California Bight, these areas are known for their array of corals, sponges, and rocky reefs, which provide shelter and feeding and breeding grounds for commercially important fish such as rockfish and sablefish. The Pacific Fishery Management Council voted for the new protections in April after years of effort by scientists and conservation organizations, including Pew, and tens of thousands of letters of support from the public.
V. Americans Prefer Online Freedoms to Government Restrictions
Widespread concerns about misinformation online have created a tension in the United States between taking steps to restrict its dissemination—including possible government regulation—and protecting the long-held belief in the freedom to access and publish it. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that the majority of Americans are resistant to U.S. government action to limit those freedoms but are more open to technology companies doing so.
When asked to make a choice—between government officials taking steps that restrict false news online in ways that could also limit Americans’ rights to publish and access information, or protecting those freedoms even if it means false information might be published—Americans fall firmly on the side of protecting freedom. Nearly 6 in 10 (58 percent) say they prefer to protect the public’s freedom to access and publish information online, including on social media, despite the possibility of false reports. Roughly 4 in 10 (39 percent) disagree, preferring that the government take steps to restrict false news even if it limits freedoms to publish and access information.
But when the same question is posed about technology companies taking those steps, the balance changes. More U.S. adults (56 percent) favor technology companies taking measures to restrict false information, even if it limits the public’s freedom to access and publish material. By comparison, 42 percent prefer to protect those freedoms rather than have tech companies take action, even if it means that some misinformation is published online.
The resistance to U.S. government action cuts across nearly all demographic groups studied, with strong sentiments among young Americans, the college educated, men, and both Democrats and Republicans. Adults with a high school degree or less and those 50 and older are the exceptions and are about evenly divided between preferring government action and ensuring the protection of information freedoms.
Additionally, most demographic groups express more support for action by tech companies than by the U.S. government, but the degree of support varies across groups. Specifically, Democrats express more support than Republicans for technology companies acting, even if it brings some broader limits to freedom to publish. Americans 50 and older are also more supportive of action by tech companies than are younger adults.
Republicans and Democrats are about equally resistant to U.S. government involvement to restrict false news and information online, even if it means limiting people’s freedom to access and publish information. But a majority of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents favor steps by technology companies, while Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are about equally split on that proposal.
Majorities of both parties agree that people’s freedom to access and publish information online is a priority over having the government curtail false information in a way that could limit those freedoms—60 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners say this, as do 57 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners. But a majority of Democrats (60 percent) favor action by technology companies to restrict misinformation, even if it includes broader information limits online, while Republicans are about equally divided—48 percent prefer tech companies acting, while 50 percent favor protecting online freedoms.