Population data has a way of freaking people out. After all, population determines federal allocation dollars, which trickle down to the state, county, and local levels, said Peter Borsella, a demographer with the U.S. Census Bureau, which released county and metro-area population estimates on Thursday.
So let’s get this over with: From 2015 to 2016 Pennsylvania waved goodbye to just fewer than 8,000 people. Most counties lost population, though 19 posted some growth.
Allegheny County — home to Pittsburgh — made the top-10 list for largest-declining counties. Despite a drop in people moving in from other states or counties, Philadelphia County gained population, helped along by immigrants. Some counties in the southeast and south central parts of the state, such as Lebanon and Lehigh, also drew more residents.
But population trends are to demography what weather is to climate: They change easily over time, and don’t offer the full picture.
“One of the most volatile components that go into population change is domestic migration,” said Borsella.
People move from county to county or from state to state for a whole slew of reasons, he said: job prospects, the state of the economy, where their family lives, and even the culture of a city. “So there’s definitely things people can do to turn things around.”
Nationwide, metro areas grew by 2.3 million people. But that growth is uneven in Pennsylvania: While Philadelphia and Harrisburg metro areas gained population, Erie and Pittsburgh declined.
As far as Pittsburgh goes, “I actually don’t think it’s as bad as it seems,” said Christopher Briem, a regional economist at the University Center for Social and Urban Research at the University of Pittsburgh. “I think a lot of people are going to jump to the conclusion that this is back to the days of the 80s when everybody was leaving. We’re not there,” he said, referencing the collapse of steel and ensuing population loss.
Given the fairly rapid decline of the shale industry, Briem isn’t surprised by the region's numbers. He thinks the metro area fallout of roughly 9,000 people will be, if not temporary, limited.
“This is a much more diversified economy [than it was]. We’ve had growth across health care and education services, it’s been very spread out, at least compared to our past. The bottom can’t fall out the way it once did.”
Population estimates allow people to have these kinds of conversations and make decisions, said Borsella, who loves this time of year.
“We want people to learn about their communities and who’s living around them. And this is how we do this, taking demographic data and providing population estimates to people.”
The U.S. Census will release its population estimates for cities in May.