Why Is Pennsylvania Called A Commonwealth?

Jun 29, 2017

The capitol building of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Credit Matt Rourke / AP Photo

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This round, Alex Shirreffs from Philadelphia asked: Why is Pennsylvania called a commonwealth?

Four states in the nation — Kentucky, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Pennsylvania — use the designation commonwealth to define themselves. The distinction doesn't mean they're any different or enjoy any advantages over the other 46 states. It simply means they've adopted the British term for providing for the "common good" or the "common wealth" of its citizens.

The term was coined by 16th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, considered one of the founders of modern political theory.

The fact that Pennsylvania ranks as the worst state in educational inequity and is among the worst in income inequality for African Americans and women, begs the question: Is the commonwealth living up to its promise to provide for the good of all of its citizens?

For Christine Flowers, an immigration lawyer and opinion columnist, the answer is two-pronged. Aspirationally, she says, Pennsylvania puts forth its best effort. But practically, there have been disappointments.

"I think we've established programs and policies that would advance the common good," Flowers says. "But all you have to do is Google trials in Pennsylvania, corruption trials in Pennsylvania. We have been let down by our politicians, our representative who we entrusted our welfare, our commonwealth."

Philadelphia Councilwoman-at-large Helen Gym sees education as one of the most glaring disparities in providing for the common wealth of all Pennsylvanians.

"I measure the quality of our society with how we treat our neediest folks, and that is especially our children," Gym says.

She added the inequality is reflected "in a commonwealth like Pennsylvania, which is the worst in the nation when it comes to the funding gap between the wealthiest and the poorest school districts. Or when we see our young people graduate from college with some of the highest debt loads in the nation, we have to ask ourselves whether we are truly committed to that vision."

Gym says Pennsylvania is not living up to its name because it is not providing support for all of its citizens. She gives Philadelphia as an example, a city where 26 percent of residents live in poverty.

"We're talking about what it means to take care of our most vulnerable, our youth who are experiencing homelessness, for our mentally ill struggling with addiction, our tenants facing eviction and our immigrants facing deportation," she says. "These are very important aspects of what it means to be an inclusive city."

Despite the challenges, Christine Flowers is hopeful that all citizens will enjoy the common wealth that is their right.

"I'm a cock-eyed optimist and I do believe Pennsylvania, among the four commonwealths, really does have its eye on the prize, being the future," she said.