Considering all that has happened in Philadelphia over the past several years, it is difficult to find a single statistical indicator that best captures the state of the city in 2017.
Is it 10 straight years of modest population increases, producing a more diverse and vibrant community?
Is it Philadelphia's solid, if not dynamic, rate of job growth?
An unemployment rate that remains stubbornly high, even with the additional jobs?
Or a poverty rate that has not dropped in any significant way?
Philadelphians appear to be more comfortable with their city's increased vitality, despite its long-term problems. When polled by Pew in August, residents were more inclined to see the city as heading in the right direction than at any time in the seven years of the poll's existence.
In the Pew Charitable Trusts' annual look at the city's overall condition, there are plenty of statistics to support that view, led by the higher population. Although the cumulative growth in the last 10 years has amounted to little more than 5 percent, Philadelphia's head count is as large as it has been in nearly a quarter-century.
The recent economic data have been particularly strong. The job market has expanded, adding 40,000 positions in the past five years; in 2016, Philadelphia outperformed the nation as a whole in job growth for the first time since the Great Recession. The rise in median household income for city residents outpaced the nation as well, up more than 5 percent in a single year. The residential construction boom, while slowing, has life in it yet, and home sale prices have risen 38 percent since 2010.
In addition, the city has become safer. Major crimes declined again in 2016, dropping to levels not seen in decades. In the last several years, deaths from homicides, fires, and traffic accidents have been at or near historic lows, and infant mortality has fallen as well.
But the city's deep and chronic problems remain. Even with the relatively strong economy of the past few years, more than a quarter of city residents still live below the poverty line, and Philadelphia has been unable to shake its title as the poorest of the nation's 10 largest cities.
Despite the recent job growth, the unemployment rate for city residents was 6.8 percent in 2016, nearly 2 percentage points above the national average and higher than in Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, and Pittsburgh, among others. The percentage of adult Philadelphians not working or looking for work remained at 31 percent, a big number relative to other cities. And with housing costs on the rise, 56 percent of residents were paying 30 percent or more of their incomes for places to live.
Another disturbing trend has been the increase in the number of deaths by accidental drug overdoses, which is a national problem as well. City officials said the unofficial total of such fatalities in Philadelphia approached 900 in 2016, nearly triple what it had been a decade ago.
Although the percentage of adult Philadelphians with college degrees grew, the citywide figure remains far below those of other major cities along the East Coast. The public schools are not facing an immediate fiscal crisis, but they are still seen as low-quality by the vast majority of city residents. And City Hall's long-term ability to address these and other challenges is threatened by the unfunded liability in the pension funds for municipal workers, recently calculated at nearly $6 billion.
Over the past decade, Philadelphia's growth and revival have been fueled by immigrants and young adults. But that could be changing: Now the nation's immigration policy is in flux; many local millennials are deciding whether to raise their families in the city or head for the suburbs; and the coming generation of young adults is a little smaller than the current one.
Those choices, combined with the demographic realities, will help determine how much Philadelphia's near-term future resembles its recent past.