Erie Vital Signs

A Bridge Between the Past and the Future

That transient moment in time around Christmas is often that rare instance when we simultaneously reflect upon things past as well as things yet to come. Erie Vital Signs plays an important role serving as a bridge between the past and the future: by tracking economic and social indicators that measure our region’s current level of well-being in seven topical areas. EVS allows us to see how our community is doing compared to the past, offers important clues as to how we are likely to do in the future and provides implications for actions that need to be taken in order to improve that future.

Erie’s Past and Present

As a community indicator project designed to prompt more informed and inspired decision-making based on objective and reliable data, Erie Vital Signs is a recent development. To be sure, just like in the rest of the country, statistics about our region have been collected for a long time, but mainly for the purpose of record-keeping for future historians to gauge progress and performance, and perhaps too infrequently for the purpose of spurring action to improve community well-being. Of course, this latter purpose is the overarching goal of Erie Vital Signs is to help build consensus and stimulate action, based on factual knowledge, regarding the most pressing challenges and needs of the community.

What if Erie Vital Signs had existed, say forty years ago, around 1975? What would it have told us about Erie’s past? Would it have revealed a vibrant past that we can look to with pride, or a past that mirrored the problems we face today? Would it have revealed any past attempts at collective action for the greater community good?

Well, the historical Erie Vital Signs, if it had existed, would have told us a few interesting things about our community:

  • In 1972, Erie was selected as an All-America City, an honor bestowed annually upon only 10 communities across the country by the National Civic League (NCL) beginning in 1949. In fact, as recently as 2009, Erie was one of 32 finalists and the only Pennsylvania city in that year to be represented in the competition. According to the NCL, to earn the distinction of being an “All-America City,” a community must “demonstrate innovation, inclusiveness, civic engagement, and cross sector collaboration by describing successful efforts to address pressing local challenges” such as job loss, urban blight and youth crime. Philadelphia has received the honor four times (1949, 1951, 1957, 1994), Pittsburgh twice (1949, 1986-87). The lesson here is that, not only does Erie enjoy a fairly illustrious past, but there is precedent for collective action to try to solve local problems. By more systematically and rigorously measuring indicators of performance, the current Erie Vital Signs can serve the important role of helping bridge these early collaborative community efforts with even stronger and more impactful actions in the future.
  • If it had existed back in 1975, the historical EVS would also have told us that, by the year 2016, three Erie cultural institutions would be celebrating a rich history of being a part of the community for at least 100 years: Erie Art Museum, Erie Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Erie Playhouse. Undoubtedly, had it existed four decades ago, Erie Vital Signs would have documented the success, and at times travails, of these local organizations which have contributed much to the overall quality of life in Erie. Of course, the current Erie Vital Signs continues to measure and track the cultural vitality of our region, in addition to other important social indicators that affect the quality of life such as health, education, environment, and community and civic engagement.
  • In 1975, Erie Vital Signs would have told us that the real per capita income of $25,547 in Erie (measured in 2013 dollars) was 94% of that in Pennsylvania ($27,041) and 93% of that in the U.S. as a whole ($27,331). This meant that, forty years ago, the standard of living in Erie as measured by average real purchasing power was not that far below that in the state and nation. Unfortunately, the current Erie Vital Signs would tell us that this gap has grown over time, so that by 2014, real per capita income in Erie ($37,590) is only 80% of the PA level ($46,918) and 83% of the U.S. level ($45,314).
  • If it had existed forty years ago, Erie Vital Signs would have told us that Erie was still enjoying the fruits of its rich industrial heritage. In 1975, the manufacturing sector accounted for 35% of total local employment in Erie, compared to 26% in Pennsylvania and 19% in the U.S. as a whole. The current Erie Vital Signs tells us that by 2014, the corresponding figures had fallen to 14% in Erie, 8% in PA, and 7% in the U.S. Brought on by rapid and significant technological progress as well as intensified competitive pressure due to the forces of globalization, the entire country has had to adapt by restructuring and moving toward the service and digital-information economy of the late 20th and early 21st century. Locally, this has meant growth in the education and health services sector of the economy. The current Erie Vital Signs continues to track these structural changes in the Erie economy, along with other economic indicators such as poverty and self-sufficiency, housing, and the cost of living. These indicators allow us to see the degree to which the region is successfully adapting to the evolution of the local economy, revealing those local challenges which might require the greatest community attention.

Implications for Erie’s Future

This brief glimpse into what Erie Vital Signs would have told us, had it existed four decades ago, reminds us of a few important lessons regarding Erie’s future. First, with the many challenges that we currently confront, it is easy to forget that Erie enjoys a fairly rich, vibrant, and celebrated recent history. It’s probably safe to assume that the region’s historical success was to a considerable extent the result of the strong work ethic, resilience, and generosity of the local residents. These same traits will be crucial for Erie to overcome the challenges that the community currently faces. Second, Erie Vital Signs reminds us that demographic, economic, and social change is, and can be expected to continue to be, unrelenting. Just like in the past, the key to future success in dealing with such ongoing change will be adaptability. Erie’s economic structure continues to evolve in response to economic and technological changes occurring both domestically and globally, thereby necessitating continued adaptability. Finally, a collaborative strategy within the community to effectuate positive change will require that we maintain and analyze objective and reliable data to guide the community to the areas of greatest need. This is the role that Erie Vital Signs plays in our community.

For more information, visit the Erie Vital Signs website where you will find data on hundreds of the most important Erie indicators in seven key fields. Full disclosure: some of the data listed above for this Special Report are not on the EVS site, but you can find the other data at EVS.

Erie Vital Signs (EVS) is a leadership initiative of the Erie Community Foundation in partnership with the Economic Research Institute of Erie in the Black School of Business at Penn State Behrend. EVS tracks indicators that measure our county’s well-being in seven topical areas: Cultural Vitality, Community and Civic Engagement, Economy, Education, Environment, Health, and Regional Cooperation. Each topical area is overseen by a committee of informed experts who select the indicators to monitor, and review the interpretation of those indicators. The goal of EVS is to inform and inspire. We believe an increased focus on data and evidence-based decision-making will help create positive community change.

This EVS Special Report was written by Dr. Kenneth Louie, Director, E conomic R esearch I nstitute of E rie, in the Black School of Business, Penn State Behrend.

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