Brian O'Neill: Sophie Masloff was thinking young with tax cut

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Young people weren’t just leaving the city of Pittsburgh in the 1980s, they were putting southwestern Pennsylvania in their rearview mirrors.

That’ll happen when the unemployment rate reaches 18 percent, as it did for the Pittsburgh metro area in January 1983. About 140,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in the 10-county region between 1979 and 1986. In Beaver County, unemployment peaked at 28 percent in ’83.

No region lost more of its population than ours in the 1980s — more than half the people who split were between the ages of 20 and 34 in 1980.

Hence all the Steelers bars dotting the country today.

The gist of that history, reported in the June newsletter from the University of Pittsburgh Center of Social and Urban Research, is pretty well-known. But it’s the recovery that interests us now, and takes me back to a policy move I mentioned in a column praising the late Mayor Sophie Masloff last week.

Those same Pitt demographers reported a few years ago what some of us are seeing every day: Though the city lost another 29,000 residents in this century’s first decade, some neighborhoods are growing because more young people are moving to Pittsburgh than moving away.

The number of people in the city between the ages of 18 and 24 increased by 17 percent between 2000 and 2010 and the cohort from 45 to 64 rose 7 percent, too. At the same time, the percentage of residents 65 or older dropped by 23 percent. All those trends have the current median age in the city nearly matching the American norm and lower than in Allegheny County as a whole.

Why is the city attracting and keeping more people of working age? There is no single reason, but the work of one senior citizen a quarter-century ago probably has at least a little something to do with it.

Mrs. Masloff, the former mayor who died last week at 96, cut the wage tax. Twice. Surely, lowering the combined city/​schools wage tax from 4 percent to 3 percent has made it easier for working people to move to or stay in the city. Hasn’t it?

That’s impossible to say for sure, said Chris Briem, the Pitt regional economist behind most of the population numbers I’ve shared here.

“Even if somebody studied it, I wouldn’t believe the answer,’’ Mr. Briem said.

He’s right. Pittsburgh is a different place today for countless reasons, and the young adults moving into resurgent neighborhoods might give a hundred answers for their arrival. Maybe they moved here for a job with Google or to attend graduate school. Maybe the soaring cost of gasoline and parking has them wanting to live within a bike ride of work. Shoot, maybe some grew up watching “Friends’’ and have always wanted to live in a walkable neighborhood with a coffee shop.

Who can say? Surely, though, Sophie removed a reason not to stay. Mr. Briem himself lauded her “sheer political courage’’ on his NullSpace blog showing video of a December 1989 city council meeting. There, Sophie faced down a roomful of booing supervoters: the seniors who objected to her nudging up property taxes to allow the wage-tax cut.

“If we don’t attract young people,’’ she said when she took the mic, “and young families like your sons and daughters and like my daughter . . . the tax burden is going to fall more and more on us older folks who will be left behind to pay more taxes and receive less in services.’’

Jim Turner, Mayor Masloff’s finance director, said cutting the wage tax was her idea. He initially told her that they could move things around and cut it long enough to get through the election year, but she said she wouldn’t propose any cut unless it were permanent.

It took six months to work that out, said Mr. Turner, now an adjunct professor at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. He’s amazed that the cut has lasted almost 25 years, but looking back, “that was also my realization that this new mayor was going to surprise a lot of other people the way she had just surprised me.’’

Brian O’Neill: or 412-263-1947.

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