HARRISBURG – New census data show how small communities have been bleeding population over the Past decade while the fastest-growing parts of the state have been in suburban and urban communities.
The new findings come as state lawmakers are beginning to prepare to do the redistricting process, which will determine the legislative and congressional maps used for the next decade.
The U.S. Census Bureau in April announced that Pennsylvania will lose one of its 18 congressional seats due to the state’s slow population growth compared to other parts of the country.
The data released last week show that the population changes have varied dramatically depending on the region of the state and the types of municipalities, as small boroughs, townships and cities mostly lost population and larger cities and suburbs gained population.
Key findings from the Census data:
• Of the 48 cities with less than 50,000 people, only three – Lebanon, Easton and York – saw their populations increase.
• Of the eight cities with more than 50,000 residents – Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown, Erie, Reading, Scranton, Lancaster and Bethlehem – five had population gains. Philadelphia added 52,481 people, Allentown added 3,438, Bethlehem added 484 people, Scranton added 443 and Reading added 135. Erie, which only has about one-third as many people as Pittsburgh, saw its population drop more than Pittsburgh. Erie had 101,786 people in 2010 and lost 6,709, so that by 2020 its population stood at 95,977.
Pittsburgh, with 305,704 people in 2010, lost 6,478, so that by 2020 its population stood at 299,226, the first time since the 19th century that Pittsburgh had fewer than 300,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Other than Erie and Pittsburgh among Pennsylvania’s largest cities, only Lancaster, which lost 332 people, saw its population drop.
• There are 43 townships with more than 25,000 residents, and just over half of them – 28 – saw their populations increase.
Pennsylvania has almost as many townships with more than 50,000 residents as it has cities with more than 50,000 people, with seven townships with more than 50,000 residents – Bensalem and Bristol townships in Bucks County; Lower Paxton Township in Dauphin County; Upper Darby Township in Delaware County; Millcreek Township in Erie County; and Abington and Lower Merion townships in Montgomery County. Of those, only Millcreek and Bristol lost population over the last decade.
The biggest township, Upper Darby had 82,883 residents in 2020. Only Reading, Erie, Allentown, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were larger.
• There were 378 townships with fewer than 1,000 residents in 2020. Only 43 of them saw their population increase over the last decade.
While the official redistricting data hasn’t been released by the census, the newly released estimates reveal shifts in population that will loom large in the coming months as lawmakers seek to redesign their legislative and congressional maps, said G. Terry Madonna, senior fellow in residence for political affairs at Millersville University.
“I would expect that the suburbs will pick up seats. That just seems logical, at the expense of the small town and rural areas. And, you know, we’re not just talking about the suburbs in Philly and Pittsburgh. We’re talking about the suburbs in Lancaster, suburbs in Dauphin County. This is going on all over the state,” Madonna said. “Back in the day, the suburbs were a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican Party. Mainly due to the business community. Well, that’s all shifted. Now. That’s all shifted to Democrats. Gen Z, millennials, college-educated women, college-educated voters in general.”
Carol Kuniholm, chair of Fair Districts PA, a group that’s been lobbying for the state to reform the way political maps are redrawn, said that residents should recognize how their communities have changed and be prepared to lobby lawmakers to make sure that the political maps reflect the state’s population as closely as possible.
“Look at your communities, look at the maps you had before to talk about what a good map would look like for you now and be ready to give testimony because we know that there will be public hearings,” during the redistricting process, Kuniholm said.
The state’s legislative maps are drawn by a committee consisting of four state legislative leaders and a fifth tie-breaking vote by the chairman, former University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, who was appointed by the state Supreme Court in May.
The maps used to set the state’s congressional districts are established through legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor. Republicans hold the majority in both chambers of the General Assembly, and Democrat Tom Wolf is governor.
“We do have divided government, which means that there’s a lot of pressure on the Legislature to draw a map that the governor will sign off on, and I think the way that happens is having lots of public input, and, being pretty transparent in the process and allowing feedback once they have one ready to go. If they don’t do that, we’ll be asking the governor to veto it,” Kuniholm said.
Kuniholm said that having political maps that accurately reflect the community will also help reduce the harsh partisanship that emerges when politicians feel like they are best served by appealing to their political bases rather than all the people they represent.
“Legislators ought to realize everybody is better served if the districts are drawn to reflect their communities instead of trying to control the outcomes,” Kuniholm said. “There’s still enough, enough districts drawn so tightly that you can see places where they were really good candidates, really good campaigns, and if those districts have been drawn fairly, that race would have swung dramatically. But they were so locked in and so barricaded against them, you know, the different voices didn’t win, but if those regions that should be purple were drawn to reflect communities, it would change the entire tone in Harrisburg, for sure.”