Thursday, March 14, 2013

Paging Border Guard Bob

Is funny. Pittsburgh reacts to bad news far more than good news. This may be the quietest response I’ve ever seen for the annual dump of population estimates for the Pittsbrughregion. Yesterday the census folks updated their population counts for the Pittsburgh region through 2012. The local coverage of it was quite muted including this from the PG: New Pittsburgh Area Residents Outnumber those leaving for 5th straight year , Trib ever more esoterically: Experts dispute Census find of 1% fewer births, and PBT: Pittsburgh region population slightly up. Each version buried deep on inside pages (or virtual) and without much reverb. There was a time this was a big news here every year.

So here is the thing. It was for the longest time an annual wonkish ritual every year when the census gnomes updated their annual population estimates for the Pittsburgh region. Inevitably the population was going down, even long after the worst of the jobs losses now 30 years ago.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, made several leaps to the conclusion that it all meant ALL THE YOUNG PEOPLE ARE FLEEING from Pittsburgh. It was a ritualistic gnashing of the region’s teeth that fed a very counterproductive angst. Given the annual news cycle, I really can’t fault the powers that be for conceiving of Border Guard Bob. Something (anything!) had to be done. It was like the prime directive to save the region. Energetic folks wanted to fix the problem. Even if Bob couldn't help, we were willing to try all sorts of creative things to achieve the same end. Creative being a bit of a euphemism. I actually wanted Project 84 to move ahead; I suspected someone would have gone to jail for kidnapping.

The problem was that they didn’t understand the problem at all. Getting to the core of population change was a big challenge and Pittsburgh was a very anomalous place by the mid 1990s. Starting around 1995 the Pittsburgh region became the first large metro region in the US to experience natural population decline resulting from more deaths than births. Note the parsing on that sentence: only LARGE metro region. Plenty of smaller metro regions, and innumerable rural counties all were in the same boat. But for large metro regions, only Pittsburgh with its extremely older age demographic was (and continues) tipping negative.

There were 3 big implied flaws in the logic results in the conclusion that young people were leaving… a conclusion viewed as tautological among most denizens of Pittsburgh and even more so by vast Pittsburgh diaspora itself. Vast mind you mostly from outmigration in previous decades. Note plural. So before you could ever conclude young people were leaving, you had to first discount the natural population decline. There are only two factors that mathematically impact population change:  migration flows and natural population change made up of births and deaths. Most other metros had natural population growth, so if you were comparing Pittsburgh to other places you might not realize how different our age demographic was and what it meant. Before you even began to think about migration, you had to separate out the impact of natural population on different regions.

Then not all migration is young people. We can be assured there was, is, and will be well into the future net outmigration of retirees from the region. Nothing we can do to make the weather better and retirees go to warmer climes everywhere and always. So before you concluded the numbers were young people leaving, you should net out what the impact is of elderly migration. Elderly migration is very steady year over year, so any shift in migration trends is very likely coming from migration of those under age 65.

So here we are. Now with 5 straight years of estimated positive net migration for the Pittsburgh region. It is a much older story than it seems. Officially the census estimates shows total net migration (including older and younger migration flows) into the Pittsburgh MSA becoming positive from 2007. One overly wonkish point is that the older estimates numbers from the last decade were never officially ‘backcast’ by the census bureau folks to account for what the 2010 census showed the population to be. Pittsburgh's population in 2010 actually came in a bit ahead of what was estimated. I suspect if recalculated and allocated that data back over the decade, the positive net migration for the region dates back to 2006.

Then still you need to take out the older migration flows which are universally net out from the region. I bet that net migration for those under age 65 turned positive a year earlier that that at the very least. So 2005 is my estimate, maybe earlier.

The third and more fundamental error that I think still confuses people is the impact of IN-migration vs. OUT-migration. Long before 2005 it was clear that Pittsburgh had no problem with the rate at which anyone was ‘leaving’. Seriously, there just was nothing untoward about the rate at which people were leaving compared to other metro regions.  I believe this remains the case. I am referring to IN-migration in total, which includes both flows of folks from elsewhere within the US and international migration.

What was pushing population downward for so long was the low rate at which people were COMING to Pittsburgh. That is an entirely different story than what was universally believed about young folks fleeing in droves. Somehow the verb ‘fleeing’ was always used to describe what was for many the single biggest issue shaping the future of Pittsburgh. Yet, it just was baseless.

So even back in 2002 I felt compelled to write things like this: Young people are NOT leaving Pittsburgh . So much was the cognitive dissonance of all of that that even experts felt compelled to push back.(I was told of other meetings conducted solely to figure out how to 'refute' that oped of mine, so much did people believe in the nabob narrative). For years people thought I was a bit nuts to offer any other narrative other than one of perpetual decline for the region.

I know it may seem like a ‘new’ phenomenon that even net outmigration has abated, but that reflects the fact that we don’t get a lot of relevant data until years after the fact. That and even where it has already been reported on, I continue to get folks tell me they really just don’t believe it. Some nabobism will never go away I know. Even, or especially, among those who think about the region a lot.

Congrats to all who waded through all of that.  I really may have to stop blogging if I can’t mention Border Guard Bob at least once in a while. Sad truth is that I think it remains the case that much of the region thinks young folks, especially young educated folks, inevitably depart Pittsburgh. It is a truth that remains as contrary to data as it is universally believed.


Anonymous BrianTH said...

This is such an old story to some of us (the Cult of Briem?) that I actually don't even feel much compulsion to celebrate the "news".

And my thoughts immediately turn to more interesting (in my view) questions, like exactly where in the region are all these net new migrants putting down roots? That's the sort of question that relates to present and future public policy issues well worth considering.

Saturday, March 16, 2013 5:41:00 AM  

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