Menus Subscribe Search
pittsburgh-dawn

The city of Pittsburgh at dawn, as seen from Mt. Washington. The Monongahela River is in the foreground. (PHOTO: MATTHEW FIELD/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Pittsburgh Booming

• July 22, 2013 • 7:08 AM

The city of Pittsburgh at dawn, as seen from Mt. Washington. The Monongahela River is in the foreground. (PHOTO: MATTHEW FIELD/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The Steel City offers a better chance for upward mobility than almost any other place in the United States.

Economist Paul Krugman weighed in on the Detroit bankruptcy comparing the city to Pittsburgh. Krugman puts Pittsburgh in a flattering light. Worth noting that Pittsburgh’s municipal finances are arguably worse off than those of Detroit. That’s not the tale of two cities Krugman wants to tell. If he waited a day, he could have pointed to Pittsburgh’s remarkably good upward mobility:

The study — based on millions of anonymous earnings records and being released this week by a team of top academic economists — is the first with enough data to compare upward mobility across metropolitan areas. These comparisons provide some of the most powerful evidence so far about the factors that seem to drive people’s chances of rising beyond the station of their birth, including education, family structure and the economic layout of metropolitan areas.

Climbing the income ladder occurs less often in the Southeast and industrial Midwest, the data shows, with the odds notably low in Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus. By contrast, some of the highest rates occur in the Northeast, Great Plains and West, including in New York, Boston, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Seattle and large swaths of California and Minnesota. …

… Yet the parts of this country with the highest mobility rates — like Pittsburgh, Seattle and Salt Lake City — have rates roughly as high as those in Denmark and Norway, two countries at the top of the international mobility rankings. In areas like Atlanta and Memphis, by comparison, upward mobility appears to be substantially lower than in any other rich country, Mr. Chetty said.

Emphasis added. Going from poor to rich is more likely in Pittsburgh than just about anywhere else in the entire United States. That’s right, Shittsburgh. Suck it, Sienna Miller.

Pittsburgh is booming. The preliminary jobs data for June are in. The metro hit an all-time high for employment. Pittsburgh’s economy is better than ever. The same can’t be said about Detroit, which is the tale of two cities that Krugman wants to tell. By my eye, the fortunes start diverging around 2003. Keep that in mind while reading Matthew Yglesias speculating about the reason for the disparity:

Paul Krugman writes about how the much greater degree of job sprawl in the Detroit area compared to the Pittsburgh area contributed to the substantial more severe decline of Detroit’s central city, and therefore hurt the region as a whole. Stepping back, though, I suspect you’ll find that this job diffusion is largely a consequence of the fact that Pittsburgh is home to two major universities—Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh—while Detroit has only Wayne State University, a substantially less prestigious and influential institution. Detroit is fairly close to Ann Arbor, a great little town that hosts the University of Michigan, but that’s very much a distinct place.

If you imagine an alternate reality in which the University of Michigan and the neighborhoods around it are tucked somewhere into Detroit and adding their mass to the hospitals and mini-revival area downtown then you’d have a much greater agglomeration in the core of Detroit.

The overall higher education sector in the United States takes a lot of criticism these days, but in part precisely because of the things that make it seem kind of bloated and inefficient it’s a very valuable urban amenity. Universities both create little neighborhood-level retail clusters around them, and along with medical facilities become the twin pillars of a regional knowledge-based economy. Of course cities can thrive without necessarily playing host to a prestigious private university or a public university flagship campus (San Antonio, for example) but for lots of older cities hit hard by the macroeconomic trends of the 1970s and 1980s the existence of major universities has provided a foundation for rebuilding.

Suck it, Portland. That said, I would think the divergence between Pittsburgh and Detroit would be apparent well before 2003 if Yglesias is correct. Pittsburgh develops talent. New York City consumes it. Education and then migration promote upward mobility. The macroeconomic trends of the 1970s and 1980s hit Pittsburgh hard. An exodus like no other ensued.

The dramatic brain drain of the 1980s is a testament to Pittsburgh’s prowess. The higher the level of educational attainment, the more likely a person is to leave. People didn’t abandon metro Detroit like they did metro Pittsburgh. Why? Pittsburgh did a much better job of educating its residents. Thus, Pittsburgh offers much greater upward mobility opportunities. That’s the tale of two cities Krugman should have told.

Jim Russell

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.