Conformity or Confirmation?

Regional data may reflect public consciousness
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I recently received correspondence from a man who posed several excellent questions about the Regional Indicator project and the city-​state of Pittsburgh.

I understand the importance of facts and fact-​based decision making,” David Palmieri wrote. “However, I view facts like I do data as the basis for information. What information and intelligence can we glean from the facts you gather and present? What do we do with the data, the information? What conclusions do we draw and what actions do you suggest? As a follow up, these conclusions and actions must be based on an agreed set of values. What are the values of the city-​state of Pittsburgh?”

Fair enough. And to get right down to it, data are not the ultimate determinant of social action. I also concede that what you choose to measure and what you do not certainly indicates what you are interested in at the moment, if not your social priorities. I do not believe, however, that a consensus comes already formed, that there is some set of regional values in place and that indicators are identified and produced to conform to it –or to confirm it.

A presumed community consensus about local values (as opposed to realities) may be nothing more than bigotry in fine dress. Indicators are descriptive before all else, and, in the hands of creative and open minds, they may or may not prompt debate and a reenergized consensus. But even if they are not a catalyst for immediate change, accurate description has merit in and of itself, as well as latent potential for new understanding. Have a look at Figure 1, the first indicator I choose by way of example. It is among the most descriptive we publish: Social distress is a significant reality in Pittsburgh. As the data show, poverty among children is higher than the national average in 15 of the 22 counties in the Pittsburgh region and higher than the benchmark city average in all but two counties, Westmoreland and Butler. I emphasize figures for children to dispel the myth that social stress is primarily a product of a disproportionately aged population or a particularly distressed minority population. It is not. It is a young and middle-​aged white problem. Life in our part of the world remains very tough for a great many people.

There are a number of explanations for this. My choice is from the introduction of Streuby L. Drumm, president of the Pittsburgh Regional Planning Association, to the “Portrait of a Region,” a four-​volume examination of Pittsburgh underwritten by the Ford Foundation and published in the spring of 1963.

Since 1920 there have been major changes in the structure of the regional economy; these changes are reflected in the region’s shifting patterns of land use, and in the locations within the region of employment opportunities and residential population. The present volume indicates that these changes have left behind them a residue of obsolete physical facilities and derelict land which threatens to impede the orderly development of the region in the future. The problem is one that this region shares with a number of the older metropolitan areas of the northeastern United States, but it is particularly acute here because of the rugged landforms which so limited and channeled development.”

Forty-​five years have passed since Drumm wrote, and though I do not have the advantage of anything like his research, I can say without fear of contradiction that while extraordinary changes have occurred in Pittsburgh since the ‘60s, the challenges remain very much the same. The skeletons from a century of industrial development that ended in collapse in 1979 require more time to pass before they fully decompose. The principal reason for this slow and frustrating pace is those “rugged landforms which so limited and channeled development.” They are the essence of Pittsburgh — a compromising, if beautiful and immutable reality.

To acknowledge the determinative force of geology and geography is to “excuse” nothing. Our heritage is what it is; to understand that is not to wallow in negativism or resignation, only to be cleareyed about “what we are up against.” Equanimity should be the rule as we work to move in a positive direction. Look at Figure 2. There are some very exciting things going on here in the heart of Appalachia.

Twenty-​five years of effort is paying off. We have more people ahead was not whistling past the graveyard in the early 1980s. The fact that US Steel at the USW’s insistence had funded its pension and benefits further cushioned the transition to a service economy.

It is obvious there are other important components to a robust local economy, and they should be objects of attention. But it is peculiar that we have not made more of this aspect of modern life where we enjoy a clear comparative global advantage, have not concentrated even more of our promotion and investment dollars in the development of the dynamic system of colleges and universities that stretches east and west along I-​79 from Morgantown to Slippery Rock.

And look at the company we keep. Only Philadelphia and Boston have economies with similar concentrations of investment. You hear nothing from them about building on shifting economic sands, only calls for full speed ahead. Why not a 10-​year plan with a half a dozen additional investment targets within the larger topic of health and education job growth? These fields of activity, besides being financially stable, are also magnets for immigration, which the region sorely needs.

If you visit www​.pitts​burghto​day​.org, you will find 148 other interactive charts on subjects of importance. I have written about many of them for the past two years in this magazine. Others that contain very important intelligence have caused nary a ripple in the public consciousness. Health indicators developed for the project by RAND on bed-​sore rates and use of physical restraints come immediately to mind. They clearly indicate the region lags in these key performance measures of elderly health care.

But enough. I have concentrated on two indicators, because they go to the heart of the issues raised by Mr. Palmieri and are representative of what a good community intelligence program needs to be about. First there must be descriptions of bedrock realities: the weather, the steep hillsides, the mineral deposits, the rivers, ethnic and tribal stock. Second, and equally necessary, is an inventory of possibilities that are the product of knowledge and an awareness of the world.

These two themes should conflict and complement, and if the region is on its toes (and lucky), out of that will come progress. Yes, there are also national and global “truths” on matters of social justice, familial obligation and the values of ethnicity and tribalism that guide the lives of all Americans. But I see no unique Pittsburgh values, no local ethic that predisposes us toward excellence in higher education or resignation to river town poverty. And for that I am thankful, for it means anything is possible.

John G. Craig, Jr.

Before his death in 2010, John edited daily newspapers for 33 years, his final 27 as editor of the Pittsburgh Post-​Gazette until 2003. He was president of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Indicators Consortium and former co-​chairman and executive committee member of the Riverlife Task Force.

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