Eastern Pennsylvania's Population Growth Bypasses Western PA

Apr 23, 2019

The latest population estimates for the Keystone State, unveiled by the Census Bureau this week, show that Pennsylvania is growing — but not much, and not everywhere.

While the commonwealth added about 16,200 residents, it’s a slim increase for a state that now holds some 12.8 million residents and the growth was highly uneven.

Domenic Vitiello, a professor of urban planning at the University of Pennsylvania said the new figures really tell a story of two Pennsylvanians. One, an eastern hub along the Boston-Washington metro corridor that’s attracting new residents — particularly, new immigrant residents. The other, a struggling piece of the Rust Belt that continues to hemorrhage population in the western counties.

“You could say Philadelphia is part of the East Coast and Pittsburgh and Erie are part of the Midwest. And the Midwest isn’t doing so well,” he said.

These latest figures indicate that population trends seen over the past two decades have largely continued through 2018. Pennsylvania as a whole, grew modestly last year, gaining about 16,000 residents, largely due to immigration and growing eastern counties making up for those dwindling in the western half of the state.


In general, counties with larger urban centers did better than those without. Places like Philadelphia, which added 3,900 residents last year, or Lehigh County, which gained 2,800 residents.

Much of this net growth, Vitiello explained, was attributable to influxes of immigrants and young people, attracted to opportunities in cities. Places like Philadelphia, Allentown, or Lancaster have become attractive and comparatively low-cost alternatives to places like New York City. And they offer a range of low-paying but accessible job opportunities — everything from restaurant jobs to Amazon warehouse stock positions or agricultural work.

There were some outliers — college towns often grew, despite their sometimes remote locations. Centre County, which is home to Penn State, continued to record comparatively robust population growth compared to neighboring areas.

But Erie and Allegheny County, which is home to Pittsburgh, along with much of the western third of the state, recorded small decreases in population. Vitiello attributed many of these losses to the continuing impacts of deindustrialization in a region that grew around the fading steel and coal production.

But Western Pa. once shed far more residents than it does today. And just as few Pa. counties saw large gains in population, few saw major losses. This was particularly true when compared to faster growing states, which tend to see both intense population booms and busts.

Vitello said this tracked with the historically slow and modest shifts in the state economy.

“We’ve been growing again in Philadelphia for a little more than a dozen years, but it’s been very modest growth and uneven growth,” Vitello said. “We’re an older state with relatively slow growth, even though we’ve experienced more significant immigration since the 1990s, particularly in the Southeast.”

But population is just a number. And while a growing population is often linked to positive benefits — a bigger tax base and a growing economy — it’s not the only measure of a place. Vitiello said that Pittsburgh, for example, had seen strong economic growth despite its home county’s continued pattern of population decline.

“Pennsylvania remains very much a Rust Belt state,” he said. “But it’s heartening that we’re not declining as precipitously as we were in the 1970s or 1980s.”

Find this report and others at the site of our partner, Keystone Crossroads.