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We're getting no younger

Thursday, May 17, 2001

Correction/Clarification: (Published May 22, 2001) In stories about the latest census data Thursday and Sunday, we miscalculated the percentage by which Americans 85 and older had increased since 1990. The actual figure is 38 percent. Let this be a warning to others who round off their numbers prematurely.

The latest U.S. Census data shows that the six-county Pittsburgh area is experiencing a surge in people 75 and older, is becoming less traditional in household relationships and is still above the national norm for home ownership.

Much of the data just released for southwestern Pennsylvania mirrors trends taking place on the national level, but it also reveals some of the demographic peculiarities of the 2.4 million-resident region.


Census chart: 2001 Census age and relationship trends


One of those statistical differences is the prolonged reverberation of the manufacturing decline of the 1970s and 1980s, which has warped the local age structure ever since. Between 1990 and 2000, the nation's population grew the fastest in the peak baby boomer age category -- the mid-40s to the mid-50s -- but the six-county metropolitan area grew fastest in the 85-and-over group.

The region's 85-plus population grew 41 percent in the decade, compared with 35 percent for the nation. The nation's 45- to 54-year-olds grew 50 percent, compared with 38 percent for Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

Because of other demographic valleys that followed the baby boom, the number of young adults has declined both nationally and locally, but far more so here. The region had 24 percent fewer 25- to 34-year-olds in 2000 than in 1990 and 18 percent fewer in the 20-to-24 category, while the U.S. population in those groups declined by 8 percent and less than 1 percent, respectively.

While the rest of the United States grew slightly in one category of seniors -- those between 60 and 74 -- the region now has fewer of those adults than in 1990.

Such individuals, sometimes known as the "young old," would have been among those to suffer layoffs and seek jobs elsewhere during the steel plant cutbacks of the 1970s and 1980s, when many thousands more people a year were leaving the region than arriving, noted Chris Briem, a research associate who studies census data at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Social and Urban Research.

When those workers left, they took with them their dependent children, helping to explain the region's large losses in the 20-to-34 age group.

"We lost so many people, and that migration was very age-selective. We lost a lot more working people than not, and we're seeing the results of that now," Briem said.

Still an older region

The new data is among a series of reports being released by the U.S. Census Bureau this year and next, based on the nationwide household interviews conducted in spring 2000.

As a percentage of overall population, the region has fewer children and young adults than the nation, which demographers say is influenced by the low birth rate here and small amount of international immigration.

A greater proportion of the local population exists within each age category above 45 than for the nation as a whole. Allegheny County's median age, for example, is 40, compared with 35.3 for the entire United States.

Harold Miller, executive vice president of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, a regional planning group, said it was inevitable that the Pittsburgh area's age brackets would be out of step with national trends. The United States grew by about 33 million residents in the 1990s, while the Pittsburgh metropolitan area dropped by about 36,000, the biggest loss among the nation's 280 metro areas.

A decade ago, the region's 10-year loss of individuals in their late 20s and early 30s ran counter to an increase nationally. At least in the latest census, the region's loss echoed a slight national loss in those age groups, Miller said.

The Pittsburgh area became known during the 1990s as the oldest metropolitan area outside of Florida, and that appears unlikely to change, although no national rankings are yet available. About 17.7 percent of the six counties' residents are 65 or older, compared with 12.4 percent for the nation. In 1990, the percentage of elderly was 17.1 percent for the region and 12.6 percent nationally.

Officials in the field of aging say the increase in the oldest age groups will test policy makers both locally and nationally, since those individuals will need extensive health care and other services. The region had 50,233 adults 85 or older in 2000, about 15,000 more than in 1990.

"It's disturbing when the oldest-old are increasing at a rate here at or above the national average, because their challenges" keep increasing the older they get, said Mary Anne Kelly, executive director of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Partnership for Aging, an advocacy and planning group.

For those younger than 25, the local results did not appear to hold any surprises.

These young people are what is sometimes called the "baby boomlet" or the "baby boom echo." The U.S. Census Bureau didn't coin those terms, but it does consider those born from 1977 to 2008 to be part of a baby boomlet occurring in the families of baby boomers, who were born between 1946 and 1964.

The latest census figures show, for instance, that there were 148,922 boomlet children who were ages 5 to 9 in the 1990 census, and that in the 2000 census, there were 151,367 in the 15-to-19 age group.

That contrasts with the group that would have been 10 to 14 years old in 1990 and 20 to 24 last year. That group shrank from 143,363 children in 1990 to 130,346 young adults in 2000, a 9 percent drop.

Some of that decline might have been caused by young adults who went away to college. One indirect indicator of that is the fact that in many communities in Allegheny County, the 20-to-24 group was one of the sparsest age brackets last year, but in Pittsburgh, it was one of the largest brackets, possibly because of the number of college students living in the city.

Changing families

According to the 2000 census, marriage continued to lose its luster in the six-county region, a trend in step with the rest of the state and the nation.

The census showed that married couples made up about 52 percent of all family households on both the state and national level, a drop from 55 percent in 1990. In the six-county region, barely 50 percent of the 966,500 households consisted of married couples in 2000, down from 55 percent in 1990.

Butler County was the exception to the rule in the region, experiencing a more than 11 percent increase in the number of married couples during the 1990s.

Nationally in 2000, 12.9 million women ran households with no husband present, an increase of about 22 percent from 10.6 million in 1990.

In the Pittsburgh region, though, female-headed households remained fairly steady, going from 67,602 in 1990 to 66,541 in 2000. Part of the difference may be explained by the region's older population, which could have meant that many of the women heading households here in both 1990 and 2000 were older widows rather than younger women with children.

In fact, the 2000 census shows that women heads of households with children numbered 34,534 in the region, about half the total of all female-headed homes.

In Allegheny County, nine of the 12 areas experiencing the highest increase in African-American population in the 1990s also had the highest percentage of female-headed households with children and the lowest percentages of married couples.

"One conclusion we might draw from that is that poverty helps undermine the institution of marriage," said Daniel Romesberg, a sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "It's the feminization of poverty."

The number of people living alone in the region jumped significantly, going from 258,572 in 1990 to 290,114 in 2000, a 12 percent increase. In the United States as a whole, the number of people living alone rose even more rapidly, though, by 21 percent.

Finally, there has been a big upward trend in unmarried couples. Nationally, that group nearly doubled during the 1990s, while in Pennsylvania, the number rose about 40 percent, to 237,622. The Pittsburgh region had 41,106 unmarried partners -- 17 percent of the state total -- but there were no comparable figures for 1990 to chart the regional increase.

"It's becoming clear that while the divorce rate has stabilized, there's also a declining interest in marrying," said George Worgul Jr., associate executive director of the Family Institute at Duquesne University.

Cohabitation, he said, "has become an American institution." Worgul said that as of 1998, as many as 65 percent of all married couples lived together first.

High home ownership

The rate of home ownership in the six-county Pittsburgh region crept up between 1990 and 2000 -- but only barely. In 1990, ownership of the region's 947, 248 homes was at 70 percent In 2000, ownership of the 966,500 homes was up to 71 percent.

Nationwide, the home ownership rate rose from 64.2 percent in 1990 to 66.2 percent in 2000.

The stability of home ownership in and around Pittsburgh doesn't surprise Abdullah Yavas, professor of real estate at Penn State University.

For a dramatic change to occur, he said, either the region would have to experience a significant economic boom, or major incentives would have to be enacted to attract home buyers, such as tax breaks or innovations in the traditional mortgage loan system.

Of all six counties, Westmoreland and Butler had the highest ownership rates -- 78 percent -- in 2000, while Allegheny had the lowest, 67 percent. Washington's was 77 percent, Beaver's was 75 percent and Fayette's was 73 percent.

The ownership rate in the region's urban center, the city of Pittsburgh, was 52 percent in 2000, unchanged from 1990.

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