As much as Pittsburgh’s movers-and-shakers would like you to believe that the city is the “most liveable,” as much as our elites rally around the authoritative words of upper-middle-class visiting travel editors and life-style writers, the truth is that Pittsburgh is far from the urban showcase that many pretend.
Like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Pittsburgh is two cities: a glitzy urban playground with luxury housing, a burgeoning restaurant scene, abundant bike lanes, and the other amenities of the urban gentry. Standing below or apart from this superstructure of leisure and consumption is a largely silent and nearly entirely neglected majority of poor, low and modest income workers, unemployed, underemployed, fixed income retirees, and otherwise disadvantaged citizens. For Pittsburgh’s leaders, those not participating in the city’s revival represent the losers from a bygone era of manufacturing and mining, a time when Pittsburgh stood as a centerpiece of US industry. Those leaders have put that period behind them; and they would like to put the people behind them as well.
For local politicians, for foundation heads, and for corporate leaders, the way ahead is to keep the majority mollified and out of sight while courting a new urban elite. And thanks to the compliant local media, they are largely successful.
But the facts are inescapable.
Pittsburgh is an aging city with little or no population growth. The county rivals the retirement destinations like Dade County in average age and it’s getting older. One estimate places the county’s working population 55 and older at 23.8% of the work force. Those workers will retire and age the population even more. Civic leaders are not attending to that fact.
Despite the fervent efforts of numerous agencies, the population of the region has been stagnant. Diversifying the region and invigorating the economy through population growth has been proven a failure with no reasonable promise of success going forward. Civic leaders are not attending to that fact.
Incomes for most county residents are on the decline. According to a report from the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board (TRWIB) cited in the Post-Gazette, average income of the bottom 99% fell by 4% between 2001 and 2012. The average county income fell to $41,876 in 2012 (roughly $20/hour). Those making $20/hour or less account for 57.5% of the workforce, a figure classified as “low wage, low skilled” according to Vera Krofcheck, chief strategy officer for TRWIB. She adds that Allegheny County consistently has a higher density of low wage jobs than its peer regions. Moreover, they are concentrated in the under $15.00/hour range with 34.43% of the work force earning between $8 and $15/hour.
The fact that UPMC will agree to take its 62,000 employees to this threshold by 2021 hardly inspires a celebration of “livability.” Civic leaders are not attending to these facts.
It takes little imagination to recognize that the life opportunities for most Pittsburghers are limited– home ownership or rent, reliable transportation, adequate health insurance, higher education, and even modest amenities are barely in reach without multiple jobs or significant indebtedness for 60% of the population saddled with “low wage” employment. Civic leaders are not attending to this fact.
As they have in the past, our elites continue to find resources to fuel the uber-city, the entertainment and cultural playgrounds, the hip amenities, and upper-middle-class oases secure from the urban underclasses. But the needs of the many, the long suffering residents of the diverse residential neighborhoods, go unattended. The streets go unpaved, the playgrounds deteriorate and go unsupervised, the homeless struggle, the mentally ill are criminalized, the schools are underfunded, and a laundry list of other urgent needs are simply ignored. Nothing underscores the obscene misplacement of priorities like the naked fact that Pittsburgh is spawning 10,000 new accommodations at a time when the authorities acknowledge a 21,000 shortfall of so-called affordable housing. Estimates are that a mere 3% of the 10,000 are “affordable” — the rest are market-rate (luxury).
Of course the market has yet to speak on the rationality of the frenzied luxury build out. Smart money says that it will fizzle.
When pressed on strengthening the neighborhoods– public sector jobs, day care centers, youth activity and job training facilities, mental health and senior services, etc.– our leaders plead poverty and preach austerity. When 40% of the property in Pittsburgh goes untaxed largely from non-profit tax exemption, when private projects are excused from tax liabilities, and when new revenues are generated through consumption and flat taxes that overly burden low and moderate income people, it is difficult to challenge the austerity hawks. While the leaders manage to generously offer tax abatement and infrastructure support for developers’ needs, they are remarkably tight-fisted when it comes to the peoples’ needs.
We undoubtedly need a peoples’ agenda to shift priorities from the unfettered courtship of the “New Pittsburgh” to the neighborhoods and the majority of people who populate them. But even more we desperately need people determined to wrest civic leadership from the institutional Democratic Party, the governmental bureaucracies, the university technocrats, and the corporate and foundation leaders who have brought us to this unhappy moment. Well intentioned people in and outside of this nexus who believe that cooperation and dialogue solely within these circles will produce adequate change are living in fantasy land. Officialese, spoken with expressions of sincerity and sobriety, mask the inertia of those personally shielded from the harsh realities of inequality, poverty, and insecurity.
“Its going to take all of us…”, “There are a lot of good people working on a lot of fronts…” “Hopefully, we’re going to see some innovative activity…”, “…we’re working every day to find the solutions we so desperately need”, “We need data sources to make informed public policy decisions”, “…the future of our city depends on figuring out ways to solve these problems”, “What’s the best way for the New Pittsburgh?”, “Now we are asking ourselves if in the next several decades we can produce a city that is equitable and livable.”
This is just a sample of the vacuous, uninspiring comments of several prominent leaders participating in a recent internet forum concerning one of the city’s more acute problems. There are no solutions here, only soothing balm for those neglected. If we settle for words and promises from the mis-leaders, we will have only the mis-leaders, their words, and their promises a decade from now.
Our local politicians proudly describe themselves as “progressives,” a term that fell into common usage when the Clintonites and their supporters ran away from the term “liberal” decades ago. I thought of them when I read a recent Harpers article written by Thomas Frank (Nor A Lender Be, April, 2016). He sought words to capture the feeble, self-serving poverty road-shows sponsored by the Clinton Foundation:
This is modern liberalism in action: an unregulated virtue exchange in which representatives of one class of humanity ritually forgive the sins of another class, all of it convened and facilitated by a vast army of well-credentialed American technocrats, while the objects of their high and noble compassion sink slowly back into a preindustrial state.
I believe this aptly describes the local task forces, forums, study groups, and other exhibitions of hand-wringing and earnestness that leave the challenges that face most Pittsburghers untouched. We must push these mis-leaders aside or replace them if we ever hope to reconfigure our priorities.