A Slow But Continuing Decline

Why the Pittsburgh region continues to lose population
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Gavriel Popper-​Keizer was living in sun-​swept Santa Barbara when he decided to leave coastal California, where he’d spent most of his life. His girlfriend, Alison, also a lifelong Californian, was on board. The sense of adventure was appealing. Neither had a dream job they would regret leaving. And they had come to grips with the harsh reality of places as prosperous as Santa Barbara, where the median home value is nearly $1.2 million and median monthly rent is $4,500.

For someone in my income bracket, homeownership was out of reach,” the 39-​year-​old freelance software developer said.

They scoured the Internet to find their new destination. Pittsburgh’s numerous “best places to live” accolades stood out in Google searches. Popper-​Keizer had passed through Pittsburgh on a road trip years earlier and was impressed by the Downtown architecture and the region’s rivers, valleys and rolling forested mountains. The city also shined in the economic data he considered, including a median home value of less than $145,000. “I started falling in love from a distance.”

The couple found a house on the North Side with a mortgage significantly less than the rent they were paying in California. They bought it online, sight unseen, and headed to Pittsburgh, trading sunny January days that warm to 65 degrees for gray ones that struggle to get above freezing.

Southwestern Pennsylvania needs more couples like them. For all of the plaudits and charm that lured Popper-​Keizer and Alison Hopkins from California, the region is leaking population.

No major U.S. metropolitan area has lost more people and done so more consistently than southwestern Pennsylvania, which shed more than 400,000 from 1969 to 2017, according to an analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Last year, the seven-​county Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area lost another 5,540 people. And the region has fallen from the 9th most populous in the country to the 27th.

It’s a deep-​rooted trend with economic and political implications — one that local economic development organizations and public officials have struggled for decades to understand and figure out ways to reverse.

Not alone

Population trends and the characteristics of those who live in a region are influential. Population defines the size of the local market for goods and services, the number of workers available to produce them and tax revenues on hand to support highways, schools and other infrastructure, as well as amenities that make life richer, such as museums and other cultural institutions. Population determines the number of seats that represent a region in Congress. Demographics, such as age and education, define the skill of the workforce and influence metrics that shape the population, such as birth and death rates and the likelihood of people leaving the region.

Such stakes are raising concern across the United States. When it comes to losing population, southwestern Pennsylvania is far from alone. The U.S. population grew only 0.62 percent last year, the lowest in 80 years, U.S. Census Bureau data suggest. The three largest U.S. metro areas — New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — each lost population last year.

Nearly half of the nation’s 3,000 counties are losing population, with most being small or rural counties. Many are experiencing losses in 25– to 54-​year-​old residents — prime working age adults who are the backbone of their economies, according to a study by the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington, D.C., economic policy think tank.

Southwestern Pennsylvania is no exception. Allegheny County, including the City of Pittsburgh, has shed 0.4 percent of its population since 2010. But outside the region’s urban core, population losses in Armstrong, Beaver, Fayette and Westmoreland counties are four to eight times greater. For such places, prospects for growth are slim, barring a sudden reversal of fortune.

You’re playing a game of Whac-​A-​Mole,” said Kenan Fikri, Economic Innovation Group director of research and policy development. “Certain communities get a critical mass of in-​migration, even if they’re in decline. But others, particularly small communities, aren’t going to be able to turn around. They just don’t have the economic foundation, amenities and vitality to attract a lot of people.”

Southwestern Pennsylvania is also losing an alarming number of 40-​to 54-​year olds. The region has lost as many as 20 percent of them over the last eight years — two to three times higher than the national rate. “It’s assumed that most people moving in and out of a region are young,” said James Futrell, vice president of market research and analysis at the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance. “But we’re experiencing the biggest losses in mid-​to-​late career working-​age people.”

A couple of regional population projections offer a bit of good news. Each suggests southwestern Pennsylvania is due to grow, although the rates of growth are markedly different.

The most optimistic forecast has the Pittsburgh MSA growing 11.5 percent by 2040, an average of less than 0.6 percent a year. It was calculated by the Southwest Pennsylvania Commission, the region’s federally funded metropolitan planning organization. Far smaller gains are seen in county-​by-​county forecasts that Pennsylvania State University research did for state lawmakers. They suggest the region will grow 2.7 percent by 2040, or less than 0.2 percent a year.

But the region has failed to live up to growth forecasts in the past. And to turn losses into gains it will have to compete against an increasing number of people-​hungry regions and overcome other headwinds, including a population problem no other large U.S. metro area faces.

Natural losses

More people die each year than are born in southwestern Pennsylvania, making the Pittsburgh region the only U.S. metro area to experience what is called natural population loss. It wasn’t always that way. Having more births than deaths once drove regional population growth. Today, natural population loss is a phenomenon the region can’t shake more than a generation after the economic crisis that fueled it.

Manufacturing ruled the region’s economy for longer than a century, led by a steel industry whose might was recognized throughout the world. When Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev visited America in 1959, he demanded to see Hollywood, a Midwest farm and the steel mills of Pittsburgh. The southwestern Pennsylvania population swelled from the abundance of steel jobs. But as a mature industry, its impact on the population waned in the 1960s. In the 1980s, the bottom fell out shuttering mills up and down the rivers. The loss of nearly 150,000 jobs led to a crushing exodus that bled the region of eight percent of its population from 1980 to 1990.

Most who left were young people in search of opportunity, while older adults tended to remain. The region saw a net loss of nearly 136,000 people under the age of 35 during the 1980s. Not only did it immediately drain the region of much of its youth, it robbed the region of their future families, knocking the age structure of the region out of balance.

Three decades later, the shockwaves continue to suppress the population. From 2010 to 2017, the number of 20-​to-​39-​year-​old women in the region grew at half the rate the U.S. as a whole added women of childbearing ages. And local birth rates among those women are lower than the U.S. average. Nearly 19.5 percent of the regional population is 65 or older, one of the highest rates in the nation. And deaths per 1,000 southwestern Pennsylvanian residents are 36 percent higher than the national average, census data suggest.

Other regional characteristics also dampen prospects of reversing natural population loss. Better-​educated men and women tend to have lower birth rates, and local young adults as a group are relatively well educated. Recent immigrants tend to have higher birth rates. But less than 4 percent of the region’s population is foreign born, one of the lowest rates among U.S. metro areas.

Migratory patterns

Southwestern Pennsylvania was riding an unusual migratory wave when Popper-​Keizer and Hopkins arrived in 2010. More people were moving in than were leaving to resume their lives elsewhere.

The California couple’s reasons for moving to Pittsburgh were notable for what they didn’t include. Employment, Popper-​Keizer said, “wasn’t a consideration at all.” Neither had a job awaiting them, which economists say is the chief reason people migrate from one part of the country to another.

The trend was short lived. Within three years, the region reverted to the familiar pattern of bidding more neighbors farewell than welcoming new ones. The swing was largely driven by shale gas jobs, according to an analysis done by University of Pittsburgh regional economist Chris Briem. Those jobs surged in 2008 when companies were ramping up drilling operations to exploit the region’s rich Marcellus Shale natural gas play and many hired experienced workers from Texas and other oil and gas states to meet their labor demand. When after a few years job growth slowed across the industry, the region’s migration trends turned negative again.

One bright spot is the steady, if not prolific, rise in foreign immigrants moving to southwestern Pennsylvania. The foreign-​born population has grown 21 percent since 2010 to more than 88,600 people.

They’ve mostly settled in the region’s urban core. More than 70,000 live in Allegheny County, where they account for 5.8 percent of the county population and their numbers have increased by 24 percent. Barely 400 live in Armstrong County, where they account for less than 1 percent of the population and their numbers have fallen 28 percent since 2010.

Overall, only 3.8 percent of the more than 2.3 million people in the Pittsburgh MSA are foreign-​born. And as encouraging as the uptick in new immigrants is, their numbers haven’t been large enough to offset the losses sustained from having more deaths than births every year and seeing more residents leave the region than arrive.

A test of resiliency

It happens every spring. The U.S. Census Bureau releases its population data and hundreds of news reports identifying the winners and losers follow. It’s a cycle of good press for the gainers and a day of reassuring the public the sky isn’t falling in regions that are shrinking. Growth is widely viewed as a barometer of success in American cities and regions.

But Pittsburgh muddies the waters. A population loser for 42 of the past 49 years and a place where job growth above one percent a year is cause for celebration, southwestern Pennsylvania emerged from one of the worst economic calamities to befall a region with an economy that weathered the last recession better than most, and is more diverse and promising than the one it replaced. Its crime rates are among the lowest in the U.S. Household incomes are higher than in several places that have surpassed it in population.

The region may be a case study of resiliency, but for how long? Today, the local workforce struggles to grow with a hefty share of older workers on the cusp of retirement. A history of population loss carries a stigma that casts doubts on a region’s vitality in the eyes of employers. And decline raises long-​term questions, not the least of which is how a smaller tax base will pay for critical infrastructure built to accommodate a larger population. At the very least, Fikri said, it “places a significant drag on a city’s or region’s ability to pull out of its immediate trajectory.”

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.

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