NYT Article – As Deaths Outpace Births, Cities Adjust

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Published: May 18, 2008
PITTSBURGH “” This city has passed a grim demographic milestone: More people are dying here than are being born.

A Natural Decrease What demographers call a natural decrease has been occurring for years in tiny rural towns and in some retirement meccas in the South. But the phenomenon is relatively new in metropolitan areas in the Northeast, the Rust Belt of the Middle West and Appalachia.

Hospitals are closing obstetrics wards and converting them to acute care. Local governments and other social service providers are adjusting to the emergence of entire neighborhoods where the average age is soaring, and private foundations are awarding scholarships to retain students and attract new ones.

In Pittsburgh, public school enrollment plummeted from about 70,000 two decades ago to about 30,000 and continues shrinking by about 1,000 a year.

“At a certain point the school system becomes no longer viable,” said Grant Oliphant, the new president of the Pittsburgh Foundation, which is overseeing a program that provides college scholarships worth up to $40,000 for any student who has attended the city’s public schools since the ninth grade and graduates from high school with a grade point average of at least 2.0.

“The notion is to create an incentive to stay in school and graduate,” Mr. Oliphant said. “The second aspect is economic preservation “” to create an incentive for people to keep their kids in school or move here with their kids “” to keep enough taxpayers in town.”

Since 1980, the city’s population has plunged from 423,000 to about 312,000. Since 2000 alone, the metropolitan area has lost 60,000 people.

While natural decrease occurred in many Southern cities that were magnets for retirees, the overall population was replenished by the influx of younger migrants. But in Pittsburgh and other places outside the South, not only has the population aged in place, but also, to a lesser extent, the very old “” often disabled and widowed “” have returned to spend their last years with children and grandchildren and avail themselves of better medical treatment and transportation.

“You think of this as a rural or small-city phenomenon,” said Gordon F. De Jong, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh. “Here’s a large metropolitan area where it’s happening.”

A 12-block portion of the city’s Lawrenceville neighborhood is a good example. The working-class elderly residents have lived in their neat brick row houses most of their adult lives. They have stayed, even when the jobs left, creating what demographers call a naturally occurring retirement community, because nearly half the households are headed by people 65 or older.

“The senior citizens are good for me,” said Jeffrey Wilson, 55, owner of Wilson Drugs, a mom-and-pop operation that his grandfather started in the Lawrenceville neighborhood in 1950. “They took their pensions, or took other jobs when the mills closed, and continued to work, but they stayed.”

Similar changes are happening in entire metropolitan areas, including the suburbs, which were traditionally havens for young couples and their children.

“The older suburbs which formed when suburbanization began 50 years ago are now in the same precarious state that cities were 20 years ago,” Mr. Oliphant said.

In the 1990s, births in metropolitan Pittsburgh outnumbered deaths by 11,500. Since this decade began, however, nearly 25,000 more people have died here than have been born. Health care has replaced steel as Pittsburgh’s biggest industry. Parochial and public schools have closed.

In more than a dozen municipalities in metropolitan Pittsburgh, more than 24 percent of residents are 65 and older, double the national average.

Other metropolitan areas, too, are teetering on the brink of natural decrease.

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