Columns

Why has Philadelphia become an economic wreck?

DIANE ABBOTT

Sunday, February 23, 2014    

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RECENTLY, I visited Philadelphia in North America. 'Philly', as it is called, has the largest Jamaican community of any American city outside of New York. I had a good time and met many lovely people. But I was reminded that these great North American cities were for so long the promised land for many Jamaicans.

They offered well-paying blue collar jobs and, for those prepared to work, a comfortable standard of living. But now many of these cities, outside their glittering city centres, are an economic husk. Philadelphia is an example of what went wrong.

Philly has wonderful historic monuments, world-class museums and a sparkling city centre full of restaurants. It is increasingly attractive to young professionals and its population has actually started to increase in recent years.

But, not far from the city centre, there are miles and miles of poverty-stricken ghettos. And most of those poor people are black. Philadelphia's rate of deep poverty is 12.9 per cent, the highest among the largest US cities. The number of Philadelphians needing food stamps rises year on year and the child poverty rate in the city is around 40 per cent.

You don't have to look far, even in the centre of the city, to see Philadelphia's poor, begging and living on the street. Some are rendered almost immobile by their obesity. Obesity in 21st century America has become a signifier of poverty. Others are obviously suffering from mental illness.

So how did it come about that a city, to which so many black people travelled for a better life, became an economic wreck? Philly used to be one of the manufacturing centres of North America. In the 1950s, 359,000 Philadelphians had jobs in manufacturing, which represented 45 per cent of the city's labour force.

But now the number of manufacturing jobs has plummeted to below 30,000, five per cent of the total. The big private sector employers in Philly now are education (there are over 90 colleges and universities in the greater Philadelphia area) healthcare, retail, restaurants and hospitality. But many of these jobs are low-paying and insecure, compared to the manufacturing jobs that they replaced. And these types of jobs tend to be for women.

Men without a college degree have been written out of the economic script in Philly. Hence the large numbers of men hanging around on street corners all day, with no job prospects other than the drugs trade. And sadly, some of those involved in drugs are Jamaican.

But other factors, apart from the decline in manufacturing, have contributed to the plight of big American cities like Philly. For decades politicians in Washington were unwilling to invest in America's urban centres. The American dream had become a house in the suburbs.

With the desegregation of schools and communities, white people fled the cities. Politicians were intent on chasing their votes. The cities were left to rot. The forces of economic destruction accelerated as American multinationals systematically exported jobs to China and other parts of the world with low wages. Finally, cities were dealt a death blow by the recent economic crisis and the collapse of the property market.

Tens of thousands of homeowners found themselves in properties whose values had crashed. Stuck with a house that was unsaleable and a mortgage that they could not afford, many people just upped and left their house. Whole neighbourhoods were blighted in this way.

Well-educated Jamaican professionals can still do well in cities like Philly. But the big American cities were once beacons of economic hope for so many with or without education, including migrants from Jamaica. Now, without qualifications, your prospects are bleak.

– Diane Abbott is the British Labour party MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

www.dianeabbott.org.uk

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