Sunday, October 06, 2013

Post-Soylent Pittsburgh

OK... since Gary has set the tee, let's talk population.  Per the Post-Gazette (if behind the paywall I'm sorry, I have no subscription myself, but it still seems to be letting me in??) If you can read it he sets up what appears to be a 4 week series looking back at Pittsburgh over 30 years.  It starts, as it should, with people: 

"The city of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and metropolitan Pittsburgh area consistently lost population in every decennial census after 1960, with the 1980s serving as the greatest period for the depressing view of moving vans' tail lights."

Let's start with the city. Population decline is not a debatable story since 1960 of course.  Most will say 1950 was the peak. It is actually worse than that.  Official stats will peg 1940 as the peak in the city's population, but you need to parse even more. It turns out that what little population gain the city had in the 1930s was the result of annexations that expanded the size of the city. You can make a case the city of Pittsburgh has been on a population glide since 1930. Folks long before me figured that out, but take that into account and the population within the city was declining in the 1930s as well. Much the same story for the county.  For both city and county the double whammy of regional population change compounded with suburbanization...  another myth out there is that suburbanization began after World War II.  For Pittsburgh and many other regions, it really was a phenomenon that was well underway by the 1920s. 

The region is a different story.  The baby boom generation masked to a certain degree the demographics of migration which has been net negative for the Pittsburgh region since at least the 1950s. The blast of migration in the 1980s really being the culmination of a long period of economic change, not the beginning. 

But is there population growth in the city of Pittsburgh proper? It is a bit of a debate.  Some census estimates show a nearly microscopic growth. You may note that the previous year's growth completely disappeared in the data.  Which is not to be a nabob, sheer stability in the city's population is a feat unto itself. Still, the first truth is that nobody is out there counting the city's population each and every year, so we just don't know.  The estimates are just that, estimates.  Some big debates over the veracity of the municipal level population estimates the census puts out there.  I am not so critical in that it is a very difficult thing to come up with a number for the city's population each year.  For the nation, states, even metro regions the estimation methodology gets you pretty close to what reality is (IMHO), but at a local level migration patterns change so much that you can't begin to say for certain what is happening below the county level. The city's population 'increase' in recent years is really the result of a 'correction' where some big group quarters were put into the estimates because they were missed in the 2010 census.  The net result is that the city's decline between 2000 and 2010 was a bit smaller than recorded, but the gains of late would evaporate. 

OK... off the wonk-cliff there...   The PG seems to be on a 30 years ago kick.  10  years ago I wrote: It was 20 years ago today. So here we are 10 years later.  I think all changes we are noticing now were well underway back then, to include the population story, but for certain nobody believed it back then. People thought I was nuts for writing: Young People are NOT leaving Pittsburgh back in 2002. I mean, the PG editorial board didn't believe any of this just a couple years ago: Elusive Turnaround: Reports of Pittsburgh population turnaround are unproven (emphasis added).Editorials never require retractions I guess.  But it was one of Gary's colleague's who once  labeled me a contrarian optimist.  Still, there should be no doubt that in some part the population turnaround at least has been predicted for some time, if not earlier or earlier. For now let's be clear there is no new story here, at the very least we are into our 6th straight year of net positive migration into the Pittsburgh region.

No joke the 1980s were bad.  The Pittsburgh MSA was defined differently back then, but if you take current MSA defintions it still works out that 7-county Pittsburgh MSA recorded the single biggest population loss of any MSA in the country between 1980 and 1990.  The single biggest population loss of any metro area that decade. In the end it was not the number that left but who was leaving. The migration flows were very age-selective, younger workers more likely to leave, older more likely to stay.  I once estimated that in the early 1980s the Pittsburgh region was seeing its 20-something population decline by 5% per year. Those are on par with war-induced demographic trends. Overall my estimate (though you may see it repeated without attribution elsewhere) is that net migration from the region peaked near 50 thousand people a year. If those flows had lasted for very long, there would be no Pittsburgh today.  The population losses impact us even today, but take a look at what numbers we are talking about.  

Metropolitan Statistical Areas with largest population declines between 1980 and 1990


Metropolitan Area
Pittsburgh, PA
Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI
Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, OH
Buffalo-Niagara Falls, NY
Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, OH-PA
Davenport-Moline-Rock Island, IA-IL
Peoria, IL
Charleston, WV
Duluth, MN-WI
Wheeling, WV-OH
Huntington-Ashland, WV-KY-OH
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA
Steubenville-Weirton, OH-WV
Scranton-Wilkes-Barre, PA
Johnstown, PA
Flint, MI
Waterloo-Cedar Falls, IA
Saginaw-Saginaw Township North, MI
Decatur, IL
Beaumont-Port Arthur, TX
Source: Decennial Census, various years.[i]

Note just to begin that Pittsburgh's population loss was not just marginally worse than the next listed region... the illusion of ordinal ranking might lead you to think that. In fact Pittsburgh's population loss came close to twice that of the next worse off region. The column getting cut off there shows the net population change as percentage of total population.  Certainly some smaller regions had bigger percentage losses, but Pittsburgh's absolute loss was by far the largest and far worse than Detroit or Cleveland despite both regions being larger.

Again, the single biggest population loss that decade.  Probably one of the biggest regional net population losses at least the peacetime history of the United States. Scary thing it is worse than that.  Colleauges of mine have tried to figure out the real demographic loss of the whole population exodus.  One estimate is that Pittsburgh suffered a direct population loss 389 thousand between 1970 and 2000, BUT the children of the migrants resulted in a further loss of an additional 205 thousand. Ponder those numbers for just a minute. Those younger workers fleeing Pittsburgh took with them their families, and their future families - compounding and extending the demographic loss for the region.

I could ramble on for days on the impact of that population loss...  but anyone still reading has read much of it already here in the past.  The point is that while we obsess on so many other changes in the region, the history is as much defined by the population loss as anything else. 


Anonymous The Wiz said...

Interesting that Cleveland, Youngstown, Wheeling, Steubenville, and Johnston are also among the worst performers over the same time period. While they are not in the same statistical area, there is little doubt that these areas are all related and have direct economic ties with each other. When one of these areas takes a major economic hit, it has direct impact on the others.

Sunday, October 06, 2013 9:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Rich E said...

I understand some census block info / total population counts by certain measurers. But from a revenue standpoint, total individual income-tax payers within the city seems like a very measurable number - if the city finance dept had their act together.

Monday, October 07, 2013 11:45:00 AM  
Blogger JRoth said...

I'm not sure why you're trying to treat annexations as somehow not counting. Every city, north, south, east, and west, grows primarily through annexation. Do you think that Phoenix's 1930 boundaries have a lot more people in them than there were then?

Obviously, none of this changes the fact that people left the city and region in the postwar era, but I don't see why you're making such a tendentious argument. Until (maybe) the last 3 years, I'd bet that Pittsburgh has lost population every year since about 1850 - if you define "Pittsburgh" as being defined by its 1850 boundaries.

Monday, October 07, 2013 1:58:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

So I must admit I don't quite get what point you are taking issue with...

alas, decompiling trends in density vice boundary changes, is a pretty important thing.

But fyi...

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