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Forum: Young people are NOT leaving Pittsburgh

Statistics in hand, Chris Briem is happy to explode the myth of a continuing exodus

Sunday, May 05, 2002

A local obsession is the state of the population in Pittsburgh. In the year following the 2000 Census, recently released statistics from the Census Bureau show that the regional population has continued to decline. Local reaction follows a familiar pattern: Personal and public alarm bells go off. The air fills with cries of "What is wrong with our hometown?" and "What are we doing to change it?"

  Chris Briem teaches urban economics at the University of Pittsburgh and is an economist at the university's Center for Social and Urban Research (briem@@pitt.edu). 

Before this process gets under way, however, realize one fact: The decline in the overall population does not mean that young people are leaving! In fact, it would appear that the exodus of the younger parts of the working-age population has abated almost entirely.

Whether this trend can be sustained is another question. But for a brief time, we should move the public discourse beyond "keeping our young people in Pittsburgh."

The paradoxical state of declining population without an exodus of youth comes from our unique demographics. The region's population is estimated to have gone down by 9,112 people between 2000 and 2001. What may be surprising is that 55 percent of that number represents a decline in the population age 65 and over. Less than half of the regional population decline comes from local residents who are ineligible for Social Security.

The elderly population is shrinking because of a combination of factors. Natural population aging along with a steady stream of retirees seeking warmer climates are the main causes.

The remaining population decline is still something for public policy and local officials to address. Labor shortages now and in the future are a real inhibitor to growth and we need to find ways attract more people to come here. That is a very different problem from how we normally portray the situation, which is that current residents are leaving the region en masse because of a lack of opportunities here or unsatisfactory local amenities. The collective Pittsburgh psyche has been harmed by a negative self-image fueled by a history of outmigration that we cannot forget. We need to consider the possibility that large-scale outmigration is the history and not also the future of the region.

The rate of younger workers fleeing the region is a small part of the change in population. The rate of net migration of those in their 20s is perhaps something on the order of 0.1 percent per year, a very small fraction of what it was 15 years ago. That means for every thousand 20-somethings we count here this year, we will expect to count 999 a year from now. Is that what we are getting so upset about?

Even more shocking is that when compared with other large metropolitan areas, we actually are retaining a relatively larger percentage of our current population each year, more than Cleveland, Philadelphia, Detroit and even Miami to cite just a few examples. Try to convince the average Pittsburgher that we are doing better than other regions at keeping people here. He or she will surely think you have been living on the moon.

The relationship between regional population growth and economic well-being is not straightforward. A recent Brookings Institution paper, by Paul Gottlieb of Case Western University, looked at the relationship across the country. The results are surprising.

Pittsburgh ranked near the top in terms of what Gottlieb defines as regions which are "wealth builders." Population here has been declining more than average. But we have, at the same time, retained more of our income level and quality of life. Other regions have greater levels of population growth, but also a more diluted level of personal income. Whatever the optimal level of growth really is, there are certainly places with growth rates that are as undesirable as they are unimaginable to us. Loudon County, Va., outside of Washington, D.C., grew over 13 percent last year alone. We must determine what will be the level of growth that is best for us.

Multiple factors together are causing the Pittsburgh population to decline.

Most cities and many regions that are growing do so only because they are able to attract international immigrants. Pittsburgh still remains a remarkably unattractive place for international immigrants, last by almost any measure you can compute. As controversial as the topic may be these days it is hard to deny the benefit immigrants have had on the national economy and Pittsburgh has clearly been left behind. Consider that if we just came close to an average level of international immigration, local headlines would be about the new growth in the region and not an apparent ongoing decline.

The overall population level is certainly important. We need a critical mass of people here, especially in terms of a rich job market with a broad mix of skills. Labor supply is used to sell the region to new businesses and new investment looking for places to land. It is also difficult to maintain government services with a declining population base. Many investments such as public infrastructure incur large fixed costs that need to be paid for, population decline or not. That is difficult to do as the population used to spread such costs over is less than what was planned on.

Thus it is not surprising that local governments in the region have long struggled to keep their fiscal houses in order. We have learned a hard lesson that it is difficult to plan for decline.

It is nearly impossible to convince Pittsburghers that the outmigration of youth is not the problem it once was. Some of that may be the persistence of memory. Maybe there is confusion because it is not unlikely that each of us knows someone who has recently moved out of the region in search of, or having found, a job elsewhere. What we may notice less is the large group of people that actually moves to Pittsburgh each year.

Yes, people move to Pittsburgh for jobs, for school because of family or even friends. We should be proud that our local schools and employers attract people from around the country. We should not be so upset when some of them choose to return or move on.

That a large number of people move in and out each year is not a bad sign. In fact, it may indicate a dynamic community. Of those who move here, some stay, some leave -- but in the end, we probably benefit from having attracted people here from elsewhere, if even for a short time.

Yes, our population is declining, and the demographic factors making it so will likely continue for several years. But overall it is not an issue of local jobs or local amenities that is forcing people to move out. Can we improve even more and become such a destination that masses of people will start to arrive here? Maybe that can be our goal.

Whether we succeed at it or not, we need to get beyond the myth -- call it an urban legend, even -- that all the young people are leaving Pittsburgh in droves. It just isn't true.

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