VISION 2024 | Two strategies for dealing with population loss: Try to reverse it, or adapt to it?

February 26, 2024, By Dave Sutor, Tribune Democrat

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – When Bradley Burger gives presentations about the impact of the region’s declining population, he includes side-by-side graphs showing the age distributions of the citizens of Japan and of Somerset County.

They look similar. Both skew older, with fewer young adults and children.

“You can see Somerset County and Japan are upside-down pyramids,” said Burger, president and CEO of Goodwill of the Southern Alleghenies. “Basically, Somerset County is Japan in its demographics.”

The comparison shows the seriousness – but also the commonplace nature – of the population-related challenges facing the region.

Japan, with one of the lowest birth rates in the world and approximately 30% of its people aged 65 or older, has lost population each year since 2010. But it is not alone.

Many industrialized nations, including those in Europe, are trying to navigate the challenges of an aging citizenry.

Locally, the Southern Alleghenies region – Cambria, Somerset, Bedford, Blair, Huntingdon and Fulton counties – is projected to lose 32% of its population between 2020 and 2060, according to data Burger culled from

Cambria County is expected to see the biggest decline, going from 133,472 people in the 2020 U.S. Census to around an estimated 85,000 within four decades. That would continue a steady loss from the county’s peak population of 213,459 in 1940.

The city of Johnstown has already experienced a century of population decline, going from 67,327 in 1920 to 18,411 in 2020 because of a mass exodus following the collapse of the steel industry. Deaths now greatly outnumber births. Most recently, the U.S. Census Bureau unofficially estimated the city’s total at 18,091 people as of July 1, 2022.

“There’s nothing in the data that indicates that any of this is going to change,” Burger said.

Deaths have been outpacing births annually in the Southern Alleghenies since the mid-1990s, according to information compiled by Center for Rural Pennsylvania Executive Director Kyle Kopko.

There were 3,967 births compared to 6,175 deaths in 2022 in the region.

Meanwhile, estimated inmigration topped outmigration by a net gain of 93 people in 2020-21 in the region – 4,118 people coming in compared to 4,025 going out. Bedford County experienced a positive net migration of 136. Cambria County gained a net 41 people through migration, while Somerset County lost a net 59 people.

“We actually saw an uptick post-(COVID-19) pandemic in migration for the Southern Alleghenies,” Kopko said. “This is imperfect information because it’s anyone who files a tax return, but still it’s a data point and something that we can rely on.

“Overall, in the past couple years, we’ve seen net positive migration for the region. It’s small, but it’s there. And it’s something that wasn’t always true. … It suggests that some folks are interested in coming into the region. I think that raises a lot of questions about, OK, what does that mean for a community? Do we want more of that? How do we address that?”

Kopko said teleworking and inmigration can be encouraged by smaller communities where housing and the general cost of living is cheaper than in major metropolitan areas.

There are concerns about that approach, though – such as the subsequent increased demand for costly rural broadband internet infrastructure and the potential for local people who make less money to be pinched out of the housing market by remote- working outsiders with more income.

He also stressed the need to remain cognizant of the issues associated with a shrinking and aging population, such as an increased demand for geriatric health care, specifically in assisted living facilities.

Smaller workforces, weakening tax bases, lower school enrollments and disappearing political clout can also be byproducts of population loss.

“I think, at the end of the day, my big takeaway or my big piece of advice to community planners and stakeholders is that we just need to be thoughtful about all these strategies and what the potential consequences are going to be,” Kopko said.

“I think population change is certainly manageable. It can be reversed if you want to do that. If you don’t want to, that’s fine, too. It’s just making sure you’re aware of what changes and what services are going to be needed in the future. I think that’s the key.”

Burger puts his emphasis on real gross domestic product (rGDP) analysis, as opposed to just focusing on headcount.

His numbers show that the Southern Alleghenies’ number of employed people dropped by 5% from 2005 to 2021, but the rGDP increased by 1%. In comparison, Pennsylvania gained 2% in employed persons and 20% in rGDP. The United States’ population grew by 8%, with the rGDP expanding by 32%.

The Johnstown metropolitan area has one of the least productive economies in the country. Its per-capita GDP ranked 341st out of 357 metro areas, according to a recent analysis by Smartest Dollar, a consumer advocate group.

Burger cited Blair County as a positive local example, with its rGDP growing by 9% while its number of employed persons dropped by 9%.

“It is possible – and more than possible, probable – if you handle it the right way, to have a very good level of prosperity in society even when you have aging and demographic stagnation, depopulation,” Burger said. “But you have to be thoughtful about it, and that’s what I’m hoping to encourage folks to do is to be thoughtful about what we’re doing now and how we plan for the future.”

Burger said there are two approaches – to attempt to grow the population, or to adapt to the lower number of residents in areas “that have a defined geographic boundary,” such as municipalities and school districts.

“They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive, but a lot of times you’ve got to pick a lane,” Burger said. “My personal opinion is to pick adaptation. So how do you make public and private systems work well when the resource level is going to shift and change and shrink, and provide a level of prosperity and stability while that occurs?

“I’m trying to get people to be aware of that and think about those things.”

Overall, he encourages using rGDP/employed people as the primary metric for gauging the economy, making employees more productive, expanding automation and developing job training.

He also emphasized the need for strategies that properly adjust to the reality of the available workforce.

“There may be difficult choices that our region may face from a workforce standpoint,” Burger said. “The difference between having a cashier that checks you out or a nurse when you go to the emergency room – you may not be able to have both. You might have to decide, ‘Where is that resource best allocated in the region to best serve the region?’ ”

Online Shopping at Goodwill

Through the Shopgoodwill online auction site, you can experience a fun and exciting way to shop for specialty items such as one-of-a-kinds, collectibles, antiques, estate pieces, jewelry, nostalgic items, and more!

At Goodwill of the Southern Alleghenies, we know that our donors value their donations to Goodwill and want us to get the maximum value possible to support our mission. Listing these items on Shopgoodwill allows us to generate more revenue because these items go to the highest bidders who know the values of the items.

Donors can be sure that the revenue generated from the sale of their donated items on will support job training and employment services for people in their community – just as it does through purchases made in our 10 Goodwill Retail Stores.