Pittsburgh's growth hampered by death rate, 'empty generation'
April 3, 2017 12:00 AM
An aging population that dies more frequently than it procreates is the main reason that Pittsburgh can't seem to see a bump in its growth rath. The city also suffered when an entire generation — spurred by job loss in the manufacturing sector — moved away and took their children, who would now be building families, with them.
By Gary Rotstein / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It’s hard to win a fight with one arm tied behind your back, and an equivalent demographic handicap is stymieing the Pittsburgh region’s growth.
Population estimates for July 2016 released by the U.S. Census Bureau last month showed a fourth consecutive year of decline for the seven-county metropolitan area — a loss of 8,972 most recently. While a relatively slow-growing local jobs market is one rational explanation, Pittsburghers are often puzzled that a seemingly vibrant city drawing national buzz isn’t gaining population like most large cities.
Here’s a local demographic aberration that has to be taken into account: We die more often than give birth.
For a full two decades since 1996, in a trend showing no signs of abating, the unusually aged metropolitan area of Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties has had more deaths than births. The gap is 2,500 or more annually in a morbid imbalance matched by no comparably sized urban center in America.
If the region is to grow, it will take immigration from other parts of the country or from other nations to compensate for that natural shortfall. Most years, including the most recent ones, there is a net gain internationally but not domestically. The Census Bureau estimated that from 2015 to 2016, the Pittsburgh metro had 4,187 more deaths than births; suffered a net loss of 7,652 people to other parts of the U.S.; and gained 4,023 people via international exchange.
While efforts to attract more people from elsewhere are often discussed by civic officials, their capacity to stop residents already here from dying or coax them into abundant procreation is limited. The natural population decline is an inevitable result of so many working-age people having left during southwestern Pennsylvania’s 1970s-1980s manufacturing collapse. Not only did those people leave, but the kids they had — who would in many cases be in their child-bearing years now — aren’t here either.
“It will take a while to work through the echoes of the past,” said Chuck Imbrogno, models and data manager for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, a 10-county planning group. “The trend we saw was the population hollowed out, the older population stayed, the younger residents with families left for greener pastures, and it’s almost like we have an empty generation in the region.”
Census data indicate 18.7 percent of the metropolitan area’s population is 65 or older, compared to 14.9 percent nationally. It’s a big gap, but actually less so than in 2000, when older adults made up 17.7 percent of the local population but only 12.4 percent nationally. The aging of the U.S. population is gradually catching up to the Pittsburgh area’s longtime lead.
It’s birth rather than death patterns for which the region is most unusual. The 27,000 deaths annually in the seven counties are equivalent to a generation ago, in the early 1990s. Deaths nationally, meanwhile, have seen a small, gradual uptick.
But in the past quarter century, the number of babies being born in the metro has plummeted 25 percent, from about 32,000 annually to 24,000. The sharpest downturn was during the 1990s before leveling off during the past decade. The number of births nationally has also declined since 1990 — from shifts in age composition and child-rearing tendencies — but only slightly, from about 4.2 million to 4 million.
The skewed local demographics make Pittsburgh an outlier by many measurements. Since the 2010 national census head count, the Pittsburgh region is estimated to have had 20,597 more deaths than births, while no metro outside of Florida has had a natural decrease of even half that.
Among 48 metropolitan areas that have had more deaths than births in that span, the rest are almost all either retirement meccas or much smaller Rust Belt areas with their own migration/aging issues, including four others in Pennsylvania: Altoona, Bloomsburg, Johnstown and Scranton.
Herbert Smith, director of the Population Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania, sees the Pennsylvania communities as severely challenged in achieving population turnarounds, given their demographic imbalances in addition to the economic factors that have created out-migration.
While Pittsburgh’s growing universities have done a good job of attracting more young people to the city, he said, if they leave to build careers elsewhere, it means they are likely gone before having their children. The more educated that women are, the later they tend to postpone childbirth. Among other hurdles, census data show Pittsburgh region women of child-bearing age give birth less often than is the case elsewhere — 48 per 1,000 women in a year compared to 53 nationally.
“You have a set of factors where not enough people are coming in, there’s not enough international migration coming in, the population is old compared to other places and you can’t trick those people who are young into having babies now, because they’re waiting to do so,” said Mr. Smith, a sociology professor.
One might think obstetricians would be fleeing the area in search of more fertile pastures elsewhere to practice their specialty, given all the demographic data. Dozens of maternity wards have closed across Pennsylvania since the 1990s, with units at Allegheny General Hospital, UPMC Shadyside and UPMC McKeesport among them.
But other financial and strategic considerations besides demographics factor into decisions to operate obstetrics units, said Dr. Allan Klapper, Allegheny Health Network’s chairman of obstetrics and gynecology. He said AHN’s maternity operations have thrived in recent years. including the region’s first new unit in decades at Jefferson Hospital serving the South Hills.
If there’s reason to be concerned about local demographics and the number of babies being produced, said Dr. Klapper, “we haven’t seen it. ... Maybe over the next 15 or 25 years we may have to adjust to volume shifts from changing demographics, but hopefully the younger population will grow from new industries coming in.”
Officials from UPMC, whose Magee-Womens Hospital is the largest birthing center in the region, did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite the deaths-over-births equation, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission’s population forecasts hold out hope for growth in the region.
Mr. Imbrogno said he did not have a breakdown on how the natural population change component compares with the migration components in the forecasting, but overall, its models suggest that the population in the SPC’s 10-county region — which includes Greene, Lawrence and Indiana counties in addition to the metro — will increase between 2015 and 2020 and in each successive five-year period through 2040.
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