President's Note, March 2023
Written by John Seager, President and CEO | Published: March 13, 2023
While the global tide of overpopulation continues to rise rapidly, there are crosscurrents where population has begun to decline—most notably in Japan, Eastern Europe, and now China. Here in the U.S., the Census Bureau reports that in 2022, 18 states saw their populations decline even as our national population grew by more than 1.2 million, and that between 2010 and 2020, the population of more than half of all U.S. counties dropped while our nation as a whole grew by more than 22 million.
When population declines anywhere, it’s portrayed as problematic. A recent headline in The New York Times asserted, “China’s Shrinking Population Is Cause for Alarm,” while Oregon Public Broadcasting reported, “Oregon Population Decline Is Cause for Concern, Say Economists.” We can help change this narrative by drawing attention to places that are thriving while growing smaller.
The focus of policymakers has long been on how communities cope with population growth. Yet with reductions in family size, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, we need sound models for flourishing when populations grow smaller in a given locale—which typically occurs due to a combination of lower birth rates and outmigration.
A good place to look for inspiration is Pittsburgh. Mid-20th century photos of what was then dubbed “Steel City” show smoke and haze blackening daytime skies. Factories operating around the clock provided employment in a city that reached a population of nearly 700,000 in 1930.
Times change. Today, there are no longer any steel mills within the city limits, and Pittsburgh’s population has plummeted to 300,000. This isn’t just a story of suburban flight, as the number of people in the entire metropolitan area has dropped by more than 200,000 over the past half-century. Has this dramatic population decline resulted in economic hardship and pervasive personal misery? The answer is a resounding no!
Pittsburgh is thriving. Per capita income has rebounded and now exceeds the national average. The city has transformed into a center for high-tech medical device production with good jobs at good wages. Institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh provide myriad opportunities for arts and culture. The Economist ranks Pittsburgh as our nation’s third most livable city.
What makes communities attractive is no great secret: strong local economies and affordable homes along with access to health care and education, cultural, and recreational opportunities. A downsized community can fit the bill through proper planning, sound investment, and local leadership.
There are always challenges, and there is no one-size-fits-all template for success through shrinkage. We’ve invested hundreds of billions of dollars to accommodate growth. If we now turn our efforts toward making sure communities that grow smaller don’t get left behind, the U.S. could be the global leader for a better future. And it just might help shrink internal divisions in our overcrowded world by showing that no matter where we live, we all want to take comfort and pride in the place we call home.