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The cost of living is too damn high

Rising prices, low wages, and pervasive inequality are making life harder to live and putting simple pleasures out of reach for many Philadelphians.

Find out who your state representatives are and reach out. It’s time our wages reflected the cost of living, and the cost of basic services like healthcare reflect the reality of what the average citizen can afford.

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The official website for the Office of the Mayor provides basic information and a contact number, but you can also reach out using this form.

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The Unbearable Cost of Togetherness

Low wages and growing inequality have put football games, the Shore, and so much more out of reach for regular Philadelphians. Can we get back what we have lost?

The Unbearable Cost of Togetherness

Low wages and growing inequality have put football games, the Shore, and so much more out of reach for regular Philadelphians. Can we get back what we have lost?

Of all the things we’ve watched grow increasingly, depressingly expensive in recent years — groceries; college tuition; beer — the climbing cost of a getaway at the Jersey Shore feels like a specific, uniquely personal kind of kick in the gut.

This is in part because New Jersey is … well, New Jersey. Not exactly the French Riviera. But then again, that’s actually always been part of its appeal for Philadelphians, no? The proximity. The accessibility. A beautiful sliver of the natural world (and also the deeply unnatural world — hi, A.C.!) and quaint seaside vacation towns many Philly families could — and did — get to every summer, for decades on end.

And so like eating scrapple and hating the Cowboys, the Shore morphed into a cultural touchstone, something around which many a disparate Philadelphian could unite. Or if not unite, at least overlap with one another, Venn diagram-style. Whether we were Margatians, Sea Islanders, Ocean Citizens, or what have you; homeowners or hotel-goers; wealthy, working-class or in between, many Philadelphians had this patch of sand in common.

This is not the case anymore. The Inquirer is littered lately with stories about rising Shore prices and people getting priced out of the Shore tradition, either forgoing it altogether or opting out once they’ve realized they can go to Mexico or the Outer Banks or some comparatively more exciting spot for the same amount of money … or less.

Fair enough: According to the Affinity Federal Credit Union cost index, it cost families four percent more this year than it did last year for a trip down the Shore; the year before that, the price tag went up 16.6 percent. And real estate prices? Fuhgettabout it. Those have been in the stratosphere for years now, with the trickle-down effect of boosting rental prices, too. (Turns out when you build a $2 million house, you’re not as keen to rent it out, as one Avalon resident and real estate agent dryly noted to me a couple years back. And if you do? You’re not renting it for a thousand bucks a week.)

And though a newcomer might think that yeah, sure, a vacation house was always going to be reserved for the richies, this hasn’t always been the case. “When I was growing up, it seemed like everyone we knew had some chance at one point or another to buy a little Shore house for relatively cheap,” my neighbor Kevin recently said. Not to say everyone bought, of course; his own middle-class family didn’t. So much the shame, he laughed — those days when it was “at least plausible” to buy something are done and gone.

To have the ability to pull together, to foster resilience, to maintain our overall health as a city, to remain a city people want to live in: “We have to remind ourselves that we are the same, to share some part of identity.” — Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman

Firstly, particularly post-Sandy, the bungalow is out; Brobdingnagian is in. Prices have followed suit. The average home price in Sea Isle City went from $571,441 in 2013 to $1,319, 913 in 2022, according to New Jersey Spotlight News. In fact, among the most popular second-home destinations in America, Cape May County is the number one most expensive place to buy a vacation house. Average price tag: $989,000.

The creeping economic shut-out that’s commenced up and down the Shore has also served, as the Inky pointed out, to reinforce the “racial and ethnic homogeneity” that’s typified many Shore towns. And so, as one of my colleagues put it, more folks are experiencing — some for the first time — the feeling of exclusion that Black and Brown Philadelphians have felt in many parts of the Shore for years.

So that’s the beach. But that’s not the only Philly touchstone sliding into one-percenter territory. Did you know that the average cheapest ticket for a single Eagles home game was $226.56 last season? That’s more than 17 percent of the average weekly wage in our state, noted the odds-comparison platform Sidelines. And if you want season tickets? Hahaha.

The waiting list for general season seats is 86,000 fans deep; alternately, you can shell out thousands for a “stadium builder license” — also known as a personal seat license — which doesn’t get you the season tickets themselves, but rather, the permission to buy season tickets. When I perused the marketplace for the actual tickets recently, prices for PSL seats ranged from $8,000 to $125,000. That’s per seat.

Back in 2016, when game tickets were marginally cheaper, Billy Penn reported that the Eagles already boasted the dubious distinction of having one of the more expensive tickets in the NFL in one of the poorest NFL cities — the sixth most expensive tickets in the league, in terms of price versus income. Now it’s the third most expensive. And, much like the Shore prices, it wasn’t always thus: In 2006, you could get a single game ticket for $69; by 2020, they’d shot up 84 percent.

Don’t care about the Shore or the Eagles? Fine. How about a trip to an amusement park? A friend of mine was startled to find tickets for three, plus required parking, food (no outside food permitted) and necessary locker rental for the day to come in at roughly $363. “All in one day. For Sesame Place. In Langhorne.”

I could go on here, bemoaning the budget-crushing prices of things that once regularly and far more painlessly drew in folks across socioeconomic strata, from concerts to summer camps to shows at the Kimmel and so on. But bemoaning isn’t the point. Even the prices aren’t really the point. (And, to be clear, inflation is way down this year over last summer.) The point is about where in our Philly lives we might overlap with one another… or not. The point is what we lose — not just as individuals, but as a whole city — when the cost of these shared experiences and perks of Philly life comes at too high a price to pay for everyone but the rich.

The luxury box divide

In a city that is in many ways defined — and devastated — by how many of us live below the poverty line, it feels iffy, I know, to offer up football games and beach trips as any kind of quality-of-life metric. Because we all know there’s no conflating the circumstances, stakes or numbers here: One census-based 2022 calculation from CNBC puts the range of lower- to upper-middle-class in the Philly-Wilmington-Camden metro area between $53,000 and $160,000 for a family of three; an analysis from Smart Assets put it quite a bit lower for Philly specifically, at roughly $35,400 to $105,800. By contrast, the federal poverty line for a family of three is $24,860. And in Philly, 23 percent of us live on $26,000 for a family of four.

Meantime, Philly is also part of the larger narrative of American wealth that’s been playing out for decades now, as the chasm between the rich and everyone else is growing bigger and bigger. In Philly, there’s myriad factors behind the gap, including our “real minimum wage,” which is the fourth lowest in the country; a shortage of low- and middle-income homes for sale (when home ownership is a way to build wealth); increasing rents; and a lack of family-sustaining-job growth. For starters.

But again, we’re hardly alone in our income inequality: There’s a veritable canon out there on the relentless four-decade shortchanging of everyone not in the 90th percentile. We all know that the American middle class is shrinking — and not just shrinking, but also falling drastically behind. (How drastically? The richest five percent of families, as Pew reported in 2020, are the only people who have gained wealth since the Great Recession!)

One person who explains this overall trend well (and patiently, for the non-economists among us) is Philly business and thought leader Richard Vague. The philanthropist and finance virtuoso has been studying and writing about the problem of growing inequality for years, focusing on the role that skyrocketing private debt has played in helping make the rich much, much richer for the last 40 years while everyone else stagnates, comparatively.

In his newest book, The Paradox of Debt: A New Path to Prosperity Without Crisis, Vague points to the irony that, as debt increases so, too, do asset values. Thus the net worth of the top 10 percent has zoomed up, up, up into the stratosphere, while the net worth of the class he looks at in the book — “the bottom 60 percent,” he says, “and that’s hardly the bottom” — has, as a percentage of the GDP and the economy, “remained absolutely flat now for several decades.”

In 1979, people whose annual income by today’s standards ranges from $29,000 (or below) to $99,999 controlled 71 percent of the wealth in the country. By 2019? That group controlled just 28 percent of it, while the upper middle class and wealthy controlled about 72 percent. 

As these wealthy folks acquire more assets like, say, beach property, Shore vacations, season tickets — which keep growing in worth — those assets inevitably get more expensive relative to the median income of the country, which is not growing in tandem. And not only has this been true since the 1980s, Vague adds, “but it’s been dramatically true.”

Consider the data offered recently by labor economist Stephen Rose, who notes that in 1979 the three lowest economic classes — people whose annual income by today’s standards ranges from $29,000 (or below) to $99,999 — controlled 71 percent of the wealth in the country. By 2019? That group controlled just 28 percent of it, while the upper middle class and wealthy — people who today make between $100K and $350K or more — controlled about 72 percent. Vague’s calculations are just as startling: Today, the bottom 60 percent, he says, only control 14 percent of the wealth-building assets in the country.

Not only does all of this contribute to that unavoidable and rightful sense that there’s just a whole lot out there that’s entirely out of reach these days for a big swath of the middle class, but it has also created a whole new tier of what wealth buys, in the form of increasingly rarified experiences (and lives) for the in-the-know and in-the-money. As one Philly CEO told me back in 2018 for a story about Philly’s rich and very rich: “If you have tremendous wealth, you’re looking for things that are exclusive.” Privacy. Special perks. Fast passes. Experiences designed not for the masses … but expressly to avoid the masses. The more wealth the upper echelons control, the more exclusive the perks, and then, the more space grows between the haves, have-somes and have nots.

Just think about luxury boxes at sporting events, which were, as Vague points out, barely a thing in the 1980s. Now, even in typically unpretentious, unfancy, underdog Philly, they’re as crucial a part of the arena business model as selling jerseys and sponsorships.

I bring the luxury box divide up to a friend of mine — a baseball fan who spent years of her life buying $10 weekday seats at the (old-school and much more democratic) Vet as her go-to stress reliever. Since then, by virtue of her current job, she’s been invited to enjoy games and events from the suites and VIP levels at the newer ballparks, which are rife with them. Talk about a divide, she says: “The VIP experience is so vastly superior to what a ‘normal person’ would experience. It’s like we’re all living in different worlds.”

We are, though, aren’t we? And what a shame. After all, you could argue that the whole point of going to a sporting event is the masses. That feeling of being in the same place, hoping for the same thing, rubbing shoulders with strangers who happen to share this one interest. Our sports are our great unifier. The tie that binds. You know: E pluribus unum.

“And that’s still true,” Vague says. “But it’s less true when some folks are in luxury boxes” —and, oh yeah, using private parking lots and VIP entrances and special menus and reserved bathrooms — “and others can’t afford tickets.”

The choices we make

Remember the great goodwill that permeated the streets and the moods of seemingly all of Philadelphia when the Phils won the series in 2008? (I do! It was my first year in Philly. I fell in love with the place. It stuck.) And then again, how everyone fairly bounced together through the winter of 2018, united by an Eagles victory and Jason Kelce: “No one likes us. We don’t care.”

Operative words: Us. We. And what a time to be a Philadelphian! All of us Philadelphians, in the same streets, soaking up the same vibe — brotherly love, yo.

Therein lies the real upshot of our economic stratification: We lose out on the unification and social cohesion that’s actually crucial to a city’s health. Because such moments and gatherings that connect us as a people aren’t just about sharing those good times, says Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, an urban anthropologist and Assistant Director of South Street’s Headhouse District. Collective experiences are important in part because they serve as a great equalizer.

“In times of crisis, we use our commonalities to come together,” Johnston-Zimmerman says. “So I actually think the value of shared experiences is about the off times, the breaks in our systems.” To have the ability to pull together, to foster resilience, to maintain our overall health as a city, to remain a city people want to live in: “We have to remind ourselves that we are the same, to share some part of identity.”

When I perused the marketplace for actual Eagles tickets recently, prices for personal seat licenses ranged from $8,000 to $125,000. That’s per seat.

This is harder to do, obviously, the less we overlap — and the more stratified we become, as Vague says, “we become less of a society that can think of a common good.” Which reminds me of New York City, where maintaining social cohesion is cited as an actual part of its climate strategy, so neighbors can come together to “prepare for, respond to, and recover from worsening climate impacts.”

The power of shared experiences is one reason Johnston-Zimmerman does what she does with Headhouse District, by the way. “Major parks and public spaces are also great equalizers,” she says. Or haven’t you noticed how packed how the Wissahickon has been? The pools, the swimming holes? That’s people compensating for the lack of affordability in certain other communal gathering places, Johnston-Zimmerman believes. That these sorts of places are becoming increasingly overrun, she says, is a bit of a problem — but also part of the solution to our economically driven stratification, she thinks: “Doubling down on accessibility to shared experiences within the city is hugely important.”

For instance? The Headhouse District is offering a slew of gatherings and experiences this summer: bi-weekly farmers’ markets; a Night Market; free concerts from the No Name Pops (formerly the Philly Pops); pedestrian-only block parties. Meantime, places like Parks on Tap, the programming and activities at the parks and piers along the Delaware, at Sister Cities and Dilworth Park, at Schuylkill Banks — these free and low-cost spots, new Philly traditions, pull in a phenomenal cross-section of Philadelphians, not as some sad substitute for an Eagles game, but because they’re awesome in their own right.

If we want to continue down this path, however, we have to decide as a city to actually invest — consistently and generously — in our pools, parks, and public spaces, lest these, too, just grow economically segregated. Currently, Philly spends $73 per capita on parks and rec, versus the national average of $98. Imagine what more we could do with more money and attention.

I also like Johnston-Zimmerman’s idea of just pushing the Eagles to reserve a certain number of affordable seats (not just the nosebleeds) for local fans. (It’s worth noting, too, that we might also throw support behind teams whose barriers to entry aren’t quite so high. At Citizens Bank Park, the average ticket price is $50 … though you can find them for lower. Same with Sixers — average ticket price $105 — and the Union — average ticket price $37.)

Zoom out to a broader perspective, and it strikes me that we might all do well to remember that the economic inequality at the root of all of this is, in fact, a choice. This is a point that Nick Hanauer (a guest at our 2020 Ideas We Should Steal Festival) and David M. Rolf made a few years ago in a piece for Time, in which they advocate for an economic policy built around doubling the median income in the country. Economics, they insist, is a choice. Our legislators chose to cut taxes on billionaires, they chose to deregulate the financial industry and to shave down the minimum wage and, time and again, chose corporate riches over the workers making them rich. We can choose our legislators differently.

And, hey, while we’re talking bigger picture: We can also choose to push for Vague’s vision, which includes an extremely compelling case for “fair and constructive debt amnesty” — which he likens to providing an exhaust system in an engine that’s been running too hot for too long — as a way to boost that bottom 60 percent and serve the wider global economy. We can also, he suggests, give a tax credit to anyone who makes under $150,000 for the purchase of real estate or stocks. And we can train people to fill the high-paying tech jobs that there aren’t enough skilled people right now to fill. Here in Philly, we can fight encroaching economic segregation by treating affordable housing as economic development; we can make childcare universal; we can boost wages for minimum wagers ….

There is, in truth, no shortage of ideas for ways to make more of the good life more financially accessible for more people. We do first have to decide, however, these are things worth pursuing. If not, it won’t just be the moments of camaraderie we lose or the chance to hit the Shore or root for the home team at the home stadium — it will be the soul of the city itself, a place that was designed for and fueled by our overlap … not our separation.


Illustration by Olivia Kram

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