Cambria City

A view of the Cambria City section of Johnstown is seen from the West End neighborhood. April 25, 2019.

There are fewer people every year living in our region. That’s a reality that has dogged the Johnstown Metropolitan Statistical Area for decades.

New figures are putting communities in Cambria and Somerset counties on notice that getting maximum participation in the 2020 U.S. Census will be critical – and that technology could be an obstacle.

Johnstown City Manager George Hayfield met recently with individuals from the Census Bureau – even as new annual data were showing that Cambria County lost 1,324 people from 2017 to 2018, as our David Hurst reported. 

Hayfield said his municipality will be reaching out to residents to let them know that the 2020 U.S. Census will be largely an online process, which could hinder our region’s efforts to get an accurate head count that reflects our demographics.

“We’re going to have to get a lot of ads out there,” Hayfield said. “We’re going to have to educate people – basically beat it into them about how important this is.”

The National League of Cities reminds municipal leaders that census numbers are often used to determine financial allocations.

“The census directly impacts the funding your city will receive over the next decade,” the NLC says on its website. 

“Population counts and statistics derived from both the decennial census and other surveys determine the annual allocation of more than $800 billion in federal investment across states, counties and cities.”

The NLC also reminds that the census data will be used in research and important decisions in both the public and private sectors.

We doubt many were shocked upon reading our April 26 story that showed Cambria County’s population continuing to decline.

Cambria’s realities mirror a trend across western Pennsylvania, with even the high-tech hub of Pittsburgh seeing population slip. Cambria County Planning Commission Executive Director Ethan Imhoff told Hurst the Steel City saw its population slide by more than 5,700 people last year.

The number of residents fell in Altoona (-.6 percent), Somerset (-.5 percent), DuBois (-.5 percent) and elsewhere across the region. Only State College, buoyed by Penn State University, saw a population increase – up .3 percent.

Since the demise of the steel industry locally nearly five decades ago, the region has seen population dropping. 

More people die than are born locally – as you can see daily on The Tribune-Democrat’s obituaries page and in our births listings.

The impact can be seen in blighted properties across the region – houses and industrial sites built for a higher population, especially in the city of Johnstown.

Cambria County is in the midst of an 8.3 percent drop since the 2010 U.S. Census – 11,951 fewer people. That brings the likelihood that Cambria will land below the threshold for fourth-class counties – 145,000 residents – when the 2020 Census is completed. That would mean reduced political clout and lower funding levels from the state.

Pennsylvania lost a U.S. House seat after the 2010 census, and redistricting based on population shifts cost Johnstown the benefit of having a congressional district based here.

As Hurst reported, programs such as Medicaid, the National School Lunch Program and Head Start are funded based on census population data.

And communities small and large are at risk. 

Windber Borough Manager Jim Furmanchik said if his community sheds population, it could also see funding through the state’s Community Development Block Grants slip away. “We can’t afford to lose that,” he said.

Many groups and individuals are working on ways to attract potential new residents – and potential new employers – along with efforts to keep our younger folks from taking off for other pastures.

Quality of life enhancements can be seen in expanding recreational opportunities built on cleaner local rivers and expansion of our trail system, plus the work of Vision 2025, Cambria Regional Chamber, Discover Downtown Johnstown Partnership and other groups to improve and market the area.

Municipal governments need to do their part leading up to and throughout the 2020 census, forming committees and developing strategies to ensure that nobody gets missed when the counting starts. 

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