Pittsburgh Today & Tomorrow 2012

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A few years ago, a model that University of Pittsburgh researchers use to help them assess local demographic trends suggested the day was coming. Last year brought further evidence that it, in fact, has arrived: southwestern Pennsylvania has finally turned the corner to become a place where more people arrive than leave.


U.S. Internal Revenue Service data released last year confirm that the reversal in migration trends seen in 2009 wasn’t a one-​year anomaly, reporting that 1,430 more people moved into the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) between 2009 and 2010 than packed up and moved out.

This is welcome news for a region with one of the largest elderly populations in the nation — and where attracting and retaining young people has long been a source of considerable angst.

Most migration is related to jobs, and the most mobile people are younger workers,” said Chris Briem, regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh’s University Center for Social and Urban Research. “When you see a change in migration, it’s probably driven by changes in the younger end of the workforce. That leads to the conclusion that if you are seeing a positive trend in migration, you’re probably doing better in bringing young people here.”

Last year also marked the release of data from the 2010 decennial U.S. Census that, again, show the Pittsburgh MSA having the largest percentage of elderly residents and the lowest percentage of foreign-​born residents among the 15 Pittsburgh Today benchmark regions. The census data also show that the Pittsburgh MSA has not escaped the troubling rise in poverty that has crept across the nation, although its poverty rate remains below the national average.

Moving in

The total population of the Pittsburgh MSA stands at 2,356,285, according to the 2010 census. That’s almost 75,000 fewer people than what the U.S. Census Bureau reported in its 2000 population count.

But looking at the 10-​year trend doesn’t tell the whole story, which is an encouraging one for the region of late. In 2010, southwestern Pennsylvania’s total population rose by 1,328 over the 2009 Census Bureau estimate — a small increase that nonetheless was significant, in that it was the first overall gain Pittsburgh MSA had experienced in years. And the region has the reversal in domestic migration trends to thank for it.

The region’s domestic migration numbers started to show significant improvement in 2007. That year, 3,157 more people moved out than moved in, which, while nothing to brag about, was much better than the previous year, when nearly 8,800 more people left the region than moved in. Even before then, there was evidence to suggest the tide was turning. The number of people migrating out of the Pittsburgh MSA, for example, began to decline steadily in 2004.

We don’t rank badly in the rate at which people leave,” said Briem, who released a report on his analysis of regional migration data last year. “What we tend not to have is a lot of people coming to Pittsburgh.”

Migration flows in and out of the region showed only a net loss of 587 people in 2008. Then, in 2009, the negative trend in net domestic migration that had lingered for nearly two decades ended when the number people who moved in outnumbered those who left by 1,144.

That the region is seeing more people move in than out is particularly impressive in light of the fact that national migration rates have slowed and are lower than what is usually seen during times of economic hardship. The depth of the recession has likely played a role in restricting the national migration rate, as does the turmoil in the housing markets — something that has inflicted pain in many parts of the country, but that southwestern Pennsylvania has largely managed to avoid.

There is evidence that in a lot of other regions the housing market has inhibited the normal flow of migration,” Briem said. “If you are under water in your mortgage and not walking away from it, you might be stuck where you are.”

Several factors contribute to the region’s recent positive migration trends. But, given that domestic migration is fueled by the pull of jobs, southwestern Pennsylvania’s resilient economy during the recession and beyond has likely been a major draw. None of the other 14 benchmark regions tracked by Pittsburgh Today, for example, had a greater rate of job growth over the past two years. And the region’s unemployment rate rests well below the national average.

So where are these newcomers coming from? Not far. True to a long-​observed pattern of migration known as the “gravity model,” most of the new arrivals hail from nearby regions, with the largest numbers having decided to leave Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, D.C. to live in southwestern Pennsylvania.

While migration flow into and out of southwestern Pennsylvania has shifted, the movement of people within the region continues to follow a long-​standing pattern away from urban areas.

Allegheny County continues to lose population to surrounding counties. It experienced a net loss of 1,599 residents to other southwestern Pennsylvania counties between 2009 and 2010, with the largest number moving to Westmoreland County.

However, the rate at which Allegheny County is shedding population has slowed since 2005, when more than 12,100 people left to live elsewhere.

Educated immigrants

One group that doesn’t move to the region in large numbers is people who emigrate from other countries. But those who do arrive here tend to be highly educated.

Only 3.1 percent of those who live in the Pittsburgh MSA are foreign born — the lowest rate among the Pittsburgh Today benchmark cities and well below the highest benchmark rate found in Boston, where 16.8 percent of the population was born in another country.

The region’s recent immigration trends are far different from that of a century ago, when its mills and mines were a magnet attracting blue-​collar workers from across the Atlantic Ocean.

But the immigrants who do come to Pittsburgh are more highly educated than immigrants to any other American city. Today, 53.5 percent of the region’s 59,000 foreign-​born residents hold at least a bachelor’s degree — the highest rate of any MSA in the country, according to the latest census data. And no other region has a greater percentage of foreign-​born residents with science and engineering degrees.

Older and mostly white

Natural population changes affect the Pittsburgh MSA more than any other metropolitan region in the country. For years, the region has experienced more deaths than births, which has played an influential role in its population trends.

The reason for the region’s consistently negative changes in natural population is clear. In terms of the age of its residents, the region has long been one of the oldest in the nation.

New census data show little has changed. Some 17.3 percent of Pittsburgh MSA residents are 65 years old or older, which is the highest percentage of elderly among the 15 Pittsburgh Today benchmark regions. Although the region is not likely to relinquish that ranking anytime soon, losses in natural population have not significantly increased in years, and the latest census data show the percentage of elderly residents has dropped slightly since 2000, when they made up 17.7 percent of the population.

Also changing little is the racial composition of the region and its diversity. Once again, the Pittsburgh MSA is the whitest among the Pittsburgh Today benchmark regions, with whites making up 87.1 percent of the population, according to 2010 census data. That’s down from 2000, when whites accounted for 89.5 of the region’s population.

But the Pittsburgh MSA still has a lower rate of Hispanics (1.3 percent of the population) and multiracial residents (1.6 percent) than any of the Pittsburgh Today benchmark regions. And only Boston, Minneapolis-​St. Paul and Denver have a lower percentage of African Americans than the Pittsburgh MSA, where they make up 8.4 percent of the population.

Poverty rises

Any increase in the poverty rate is troubling, but the news delivered by the 2010 census was especially grim for the nation as a whole. Over the course of a decade, the national poverty rate jumped from 11.3 percent to 15.1 percent.

Few places were left untouched. The Pittsburgh MSA was no exception, although the rise in the number of poor in the region was less dramatic than what was seen nationally. In 2010, 12.2 percent of Pittsburgh MSA residents were living in poverty, compared with 11.6 percent of the population in 2000. Among the 15 Pittsburgh Today benchmark regions, only Boston, Minneapolis-​St. Paul, Baltimore and Richmond had lower poverty rates.

Child poverty rates were higher. The census reports that 16.8 percent of the children in the Pittsburgh MSA are growing up poor. Although that rate falls below the Pittsburgh Today benchmark average, it remains a concern. Childhood poverty contributes to a range of outcomes that threaten the well-​being of children and prove costly to society, including health and mental-​health problems, poor academic performance and criminal offenses.


Jeffery Fraser

Jeffery is a Pittsburgh-​based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Pittsburgh Quarterly. In his past life, he was a reporter and editor for newpapers large and small, only one of which is still in business. His magazine and newspaper reporting has won numerous awards.

Other stories in this category: « Growing smarter Testing the Waters »
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