Friday, May 15, 2009

Unshrinking Pittsburgh

Update: This post at Politics and Place reminded me of California's political conundrum.

The untold story of Pittsburgh's population decline, at least the more recent version, is the aging of the population. Make no mistake, in-migration to Southwestern PA is still anemic. But the real problem has been how the exodus of young adults in the early 1980s has decimated the natural replacement rate. As I'm fond of writing,
that worm is turning:

University of Pittsburgh economist Chris Briem said it's difficult to determine whether the increase in young adults in counties outside Allegheny is migration from within the region or other parts of the country.

Population trends in Western Pennsylvania are hard to analyze because the 1980s collapse of the steel industry drove away young adults. When they left, their children did, too. Those children are now adults starting to have their own children, but mostly elsewhere.

Those gaps make the region's population profile "unusually lumpy," Briem said, and make Pittsburgh one of the oldest metro areas in the country.

"That's when we became an old region. It's not that we attracted older people, but that we lost that younger group," he said.

That trend peaked in the 1990s, when the percentage of people 65 and older started declining. The decline has almost leveled out, and the region likely will begin aging more in step with the rest of the country, Briem said.

Forgive me for gilding a turd, but that is great news. Just getting "in step" with US demographics would be a vast improvement. However, there is a catch in the geography of the latest numbers:

The census figures show Allegheny County lost about 24,000 people by 2008 who were in their 20s and 30s in 2003. Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties gained about 8,000.

Younger Pittsburgh looks to be decidedly suburban. I can see the fretting in Mt. Lebanon from all the way out here in Colorado. I'm not so concerned. If you want metro infill, look outside the region. The Pittsburgh Promise may also provide a boost. Urban schools have to find a way to compete with the embarrassment of riches in the outer-ring. If the City of Pittsburgh can ever "pass" the bulge of entitlements currently bloating the budget, then the urban neighborhoods might start to get leaner and meaner.

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