Do Pittsburgh Upward Mobility Rankings Ring True?

Aug 7, 2013

Partially based on the city's diverse and solid middle class, Pittsburgh has been ranked in the top tier for social mobility
Credit Mark Knobil / Flickr

On the heels of a popular study tracking social mobility in American cities, Pittsburgh's top tier ranking has been widely discussed.  Stephen Herzenberg, economist and executive director of the Keystone Research Center, and University of Pittsburgh regional economist Chris Briem explain how Pittsburgh’s economic past has influenced our social standing today.

For Pittsburgh families in the bottom fifth income bracket, the study show there is a 1 in 10 chance that the children will make it to the top fifth bracket. This statistic is higher here than any other region in the country.

“It means that Pittsburgh is doing better than most other parts of the country,” Herzenberg says, adding that investments in the future such as public schools and higher education have contributed to the city’s social success.  After the decline of the steel industry, residents turned to medical research at hospitals like UPMC and technological innovation to replace the manufacturing sector.  These jobs entice newcomers and further strengthen the city’s already solid middle class.

But when it comes to African Americans in Pittsburgh, Briem says, the findings may not apply across the board. “The economic status of the African American community has not by and large been a great one…part of that is that the community was in durable goods manufacturing and they absolutely got creamed in the 70’s and 80’s.”

Pittsburgh has become a very mobile labor force, with students moving for school and leaving for outside jobs a few years later.  Briem suggests that the most loyal residents of Pittsburgh are the most important.

“People who stayed through the worst are really the people that built the Pittsburgh of recent years.”

“Boomerangers,” or, return migrants, are individuals that grow up in a city, leave for a period of time and decide to return.  Herzenberg says the phenomenon is not unusual.  When the economy slows, people decide to return to where they are comfortable or where they grew up.

Herzenberg says the large middle class may be partially due to the many unions in the city. “One of the factors that contributes to the healthy dialogue in Pittsburgh about looking forward is that the unions are there and they very much encourage the conversation.”

While Pittsburgh continues to receive accolades for livability, intelligence and tourism, Herzenberg urges people to keep talking about the future of the city.  He says Pittsburgh needs to continue the discussion on the best means to expand prosperity and add more people to the community.