Managing Decline.” This phrase is used all too often when talking about Pennsylvania’s economy, and our annual state budget. Pennsylvania is a state with a stagnant population, a population that’s getting older and poorer, and a population requiring more and more state aid.
It means that policymakers see things in our state as bad, and plan for them to perhaps get worse. It’s a like an elderly widow seeing her savings eaten up by inflation, with no prospect of ever catching up and feeling helpless.
“Managing Decline.” Recently, I spoke with a fellow Chamber executive from western Pennsylvania. He has spent a lifetime working on economic development in several states across America. He confided that he had never heard the expression “managing decline” until he came to Pennsylvania. No other state’s leaders — policymakers, business leaders, economic development officials — talked about managing decline. No other state had such a pessimistic outlook on their future.
This pessimistic, perhaps realistic, view of our economic future impacts countless decisions that affect all of our lives. Like the elderly widow frightened to face the future, we avoid risk, avoid boldness, and focus on conserving limited resources. We squirrel away money for the inevitable rainy day, never thinking about possibilities or opportunities.
Just weeks ago, Governor Wolf and the legislature passed the state budget. As part of the budget, they set aside about $5 billion in federal Covid-19 aid for the future. In many ways, given our economic track record, this makes sound sense. It’s prudent and fiscally responsible. Future budgets project deficits and slow growth among many business sectors. Relatively high unemployment persists, especially after Covid regulations and lockdowns, which means more state aid for unemployment and more support for housing assistance, medical coverage and aid for children.
No other state’s leaders — policymakers, business leaders, economic development officials — talked about managing decline. No other state had such a pessimistic outlook on their future.
The current data supports this cautious approach. After all, Pennsylvania is 46th in population growth. We have one of the older populations in the nation. Our unemployment rate is consistently worse than the national average. U.S. News & World Report ranks Pennsylvania as the 42nd economy.
But that doesn’t have to be the commonwealth’s future. We can remove “managed decline” from our vocabulary and our outlook.
Hoping for a brighter future for our state, our communities and our families isn’t just a wish. It’s not political rhetoric or a marketing campaign. It’s actually based very much in reality. In fact, when Chamber leaders look at all the assets that Pennsylvania has, it’s baffling that our economy isn’t among the best in the nation.
What state wouldn’t want our assets? We are sitting on more energy than anywhere on earth except for Saudi Arabia. This energy could heat our homes, run our vehicles and run companies at less cost than most places on earth.
We have more universities per person than all but two states. Those academic institutions range from technical schools to community colleges, state universities to Ivy League and internationally known universities, with specialties such as science, medicine, business, agriculture, e-media and many others.
Pennsylvania also is among the nation’s leaders in agriculture. We have one of the nation’s leading hubs of bio-Pharma research and development. We are positioned as the gateway to the south, Midwest and New England, with ports accessing Canada, South America and Europe which allow us to import and export products, energy and agriculture.
We are home to nationally and internationally known companies like Vanguard, PNC, QVC, Comcast, Rite Aid and Verizon. And we have internationally recognized medical facilities, including CHOP, Penn Medicine and UPMC.
Almost any state in the nation would trade places with us. With the breadth and depth of our assets and the varied skills of our workforce, our economic weakness is surprising if not stunning.
To have so many assets, to have so much talent… it’s as if there has been a concerted effort to fail.
This is why many policymakers know we can do better. We know that we can have a Top 10 economy. We could lead the nation in attracting college graduates instead of having them leave us for North Carolina, Arizona and Texas.
We can use our assets and build on them, promote them. We can learn from the Covid era and take those lessons to position our state as a leader in technology, medicine and energy. For example, we could become a national leader in treating and caring for the elderly. We could be a leading center of bio/pharma and medical research. And we can power our state, our nation, and help our allies by charting a course of smart, safe energy development.
Turning around our state begins with a decision to stop managing decline and start planning for growth. To stop saving for inevitable failure and start taking the steps necessary to grow.
In Philadelphia in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked about the image of the sun on George Washington’s chair. Was it a rising sun or setting sun? As the Constitutional Convention was ending, Franklin confidently proclaimed that the sun was indeed a rising sun.
As we look to 2022, the question comes to Pennsylvania again. Have we accepted that Pennsylvania’s sun is setting or are we ready to rise with it?
Guy Ciarrocchi is the CEO of the Chester County Chamber. Learn more at JoinChescoChamber.org