Pittsburgh area lags in the very wealthy

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If you don't know many people earning nearly $200,000 or more in annual income around Pittsburgh, there's a good reason for it other than the run-of-the-mill crowd you hang with -- relatively speaking, we don't have many high earners.

A census publication released Monday showed that of the 40 largest metropolitan areas, only Tampa and Cleveland had a smaller proportion of high-end income households during the 2007-11 span. The report focused on households earning at least $191,469 per year, as that would put them in the top 5 percent of all U.S. households, using 2011 dollars.

The 3.8 percent of households in that category in the seven-county Pittsburgh region was barely half that of Los Angeles, Seattle or San Diego. Highest of all were San Jose (15.9 percent), Washington, D.C. (14.1), San Francisco (13) and New York (10).

Of course, there are wealthy Pittsburghers living the very, very good life -- if measurements of material success are any indicator -- in Fox Chapel, Sewickley and throughout the region, but in general there may be fewer than in other cities of similar size or larger.

"Why it's this way would be reflective of our recent economic history," said Christopher Briem, a University of Pittsburgh economist and demographer who had not examined the census report. "We have not created a lot of income and job generation over the last 20 or 30 years, so we're not seeing a high concentration of folks at the higher end. It's going to take some time to grow out of that."

He noted one other fact that would affect Pittsburgh's standing: its high proportion of elderly residents. An older person of considerable means would be less likely to show up in data focusing on households just with high income, as opposed to other sources of wealth. The data come from the American Community Survey, a sample survey of the population that asks people to provide their income but not other financial information such as stocks and overall assets.

In Allegheny County, 4.8 percent of households earned more than 191,469 in 2007-11. A smaller percentage were in that category in Butler (4.2 percent), Washington (3.3), Westmoreland (2.7), Beaver (1.9), Armstrong (1.6) and Fayette (1.0).

As to how much value to place in faring high or low in such a ranking, even the census report's author was unwilling to say.

"I'm totally agnostic about the relevance of this statistic for whether a place is good or not good," said Census Bureau economist Charles Adam Bee. "There's upsides and downsides. It depends on what you value. ... Maybe if you're trying to sell luxury cars, then this would be something you might value."

He did note, however, that people with high incomes have a lot more choice in where they can live, and in addition to an economic basis for their decisions, they might opt to live in places with the best natural or cultural amenities. Among the 366 metropolitan areas in the U.S., those with the fewest high-income households are, coincidentally, Danville, Ill., and Danville, Va., each with just 1.1 percent of top earners among their population. Steubenville, Ohio, is close behind, at 1.3 percent.

At A&L Motor Sales in Monroeville, where the cars driven off the lot range from a BMW costing $35,000 to a Range Rover worth $120,000, general manager Alex de Francisco was surprised by Pittsburgh's own low ranking and wondered if it might be a bit out of date.

"There's definitely a concentration of wealth in this city, both old and new, with the technology boom and also the Marcellus Shale boom now," he said. "There's also obviously a concentration of hospitals here that plays a factor, too, with both old and new doctors."

Such top-earners enabled A&L to have its best sales and leasing volume ever in 2012, Mr. de Francisco said, after 2011 was the best year ever before that.

"It's not uncommon to see that kind of number [of $191,469 or more in annual income] on anybody's credit application here," he assured.

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Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.


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