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Michael Nutter’s tenure as Philadelphia mayor began at the onset of the global financial crisis. This did not make for an ideal start. Philadelphia, already an impoverished city still trying to climb out of its industrial past, would now have to contend with the worst economic climate since the Depression.
Eight years later, though, Nutter’s
commerce director chief of staff to the deputy mayor for economic development, Luke Butler, tweeted this message of great economic news shortly before his boss left office.
The unemployment rate of 5.9 percent is the lowest Philly has had since April of Nutter’s first year. It’s also 0.1 percentage points lower than the month of December 2007, the last month before Nutter took over.
But what about the number of employed Philadelphians? Did Nutter preside over a turnaround in this area, great as Butler claimed?
Defining ‘working Philadelphians’
As mentioned above, Butler tweeted that Philadelphia now has more employed people than at any point in the last 25 years. This is true, according to monthly-calculated numbers from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS). In the month of November, 650,108 Philadelphians were employed. The last time the same data showed more than 650,000 Philadelphians working was December 1990.
But here’s the thing: Those job numbers aren’t the most accurate, says Paul Harrington, the director of Drexel’s Center for Labor Markets and Policy. Especially when you look at November and December . Employment numbers for those months when not seasonally adjusted, Harrington says, are often inflated because of part-time holiday hires. The better way to compare data over time would be through annual averages from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW). When you look at those, Philadelphia doesn’t have the highest number of people working in the last 25 years.
The most recent number available for an annual average is from 2014. Then, Philadelphia had 641,023 people working. The 2015 QCEW data won’t come out for several months, but Harrington estimates it will be somewhere in the low 650,000s. That estimate and the 2014 number are high, but not the the highest of the last 25 years. In 2001, after a period of mostly growth through the Reagan and Clinton eras, Philadelphia had 658,827 people working, according to the QCEW annual average.
A total in the low 650,000s would still be a significant improvement. About 632,000 Philadelphians were working when Nutter was elected in late 2007. That number dropped to about 622,000 in late 2009, when the recession reached its low point. Philadelphia had almost 20,000 more people working by last year.
Should Nutter’s administration be bragging?
Harrington says yes. The increase from that low point in 2009 to 2014 is about 3 percent. If the number of working Philadelphians reaches 650,000, then that would be about a 4.5 percent increase, approaching the 6 percent increase in employment the United States as a whole has seen since 2009.
“The city has not gotten back to where it was at the end of the 2000 expansion but we’re not far away,” Harrington said. “It’s absolutely reflective of the rest of the country.”
We often like to compare Philadelphia to New York City and Washington D.C., given the proximity and the fact that everyone pays so much attention to our northern and southern neighbors. But when it comes to employment increases, both cities have us beat. Using the annual average from the low point of the recession in 2009 compared to 2014, New York City has seen its employed increase by about 11 percent and D.C. by about 7 percent.
Harrington likens Philadelphia economically to other eastern older cities, places like Pittsburgh, Detroit, Baltimore and Cleveland. They’ve all had to retool in the last few decades from their industrial cores. It’s not possible to compare Philadelphia to Detroit, Cleveland or Pittsburgh because they are smaller parts of bigger counties, but our growth in employment has outpaced Baltimore substantially. That city has experienced an increase of about 1.5 percent between 2009 and 2014.
Some of the reasons for Philadelphia’s economic turnaround, Harrington says, have to do with other priorities from the Nutter tenure: A focus on cutting down violent crime, a pro-development mindset and a seemingly less corrupt city government.
Of course, in spite of the increase in employment, Philadelphia still has the highest poverty rate of the nation’s ten biggest cities. And of the nation’s 25 largest cities, Philadelphia’s poverty rate is worse than every city except Detroit.