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Greater Pittsburgh and Afghan Refugees: A Good Match?

As tens of thousands of Afghan refugees relocate to the U.S., it’s worth assimilating them in areas that could use the help

The U.S. has steadily grown in every decade of its history and is now the world’s 3rd most populous nation. But if you get out and see the country, you realize just how hollowed out some parts are now. Rural areas especially are full of small towns that have lost population for decades, casualties of deindustrialization. Sometimes metros are like this too, showing how decline can spread across whole regions but, at the same time, millions of immigrants and refugees want to live in America.

Immigrants, colonists, “refugees,” “dreamers,” whole families, breadwinners, beleaguered individuals, who come to the United States, often coming from extreme poverty and oppression often have higher entrepreneurship and workforce participation rates than U.S. natives. It seems, then, that encouraging more immigration to areas that are in economic decline would be a policy double-win.

The Biden administration is following some semblance of this with its recent Afghan resettlement program. The administration has directed 37,000 refugees to specific states (California and Texas being the lead ones), and advocacy groups are trying to steer them into specific cities. Metro Pittsburgh is one of those target spots, which, based on my recent visit, is fitting. 

I made the trip to southwestern Pennsylvania for 3 days in mid-September, visiting not just the city, but many parts of the Greater Pittsburgh region, which include eastern Ohio, northern West Virginia, and western Maryland. It would be tough to argue that there is a stretch of America east of the Mississippi River in rougher shape.

Pittsburgh proper has itself been touted as making a comeback this last decade. But this is due to a narrow subset of knowledge jobs that are of mild economic significance, and the city has actually declined since 2010. The metro grew slightly since then but is still the 3rd-slowest-growing of America’s 50 largest. The clear decline is visible in the many boroughs dotting the region. Spend a couple of days driving through places like Apollo, Vandergrift, Tarentum, and McKeesport, and one will see a bygone stretch of America.

For starters, everything is dated. Homes there were built in the pre-WWII industrial era, sometimes mixing midwestern, Appalachian, and mid-Atlantic styles. There is little new development to create turnover, and the entire region has a residential vacancy rate of 10.3%, almost as high as metro Detroit. 

A residential neighborhood in Apollo, PA.

Infrastructure in these towns is dated toowith cracked pavement and overhead wires—and much has been written about the deferred maintenance that plagues many of these southwestern Pennsylvania communities. As has been reported throughout many a presidential campaign, the people living in these communities are often in a tough spot. About one-third of the region is at or near the poverty line, according to the Pittsburgh Foundation. Fatal drugs (legal and illegal) have flooded these communities, and addiction is a visible problem in almost every town square. 

Greater Pittsburgh’s situation is one afflicting larger Appalachia (the city itself was once derided as “the Paris of Appalachia”). Towns and cities throughout the region once either extracted coal from the ground or turned that coal into steel. Both industries have declined due to foreign competition, and in these areas, nothing has replaced it. Instead what is left is a mountainous region that is remote, hard to build on, has failing infrastructure, and a population that largely has not adapted to the new economy. 

That is where immigrants—in this case Afghan ones—could help. They would fill the empty homes, put new businesses in the vacant storefronts, and refill the tax roles. The raw increase in population would create the “agglomeration” benefits long described by economists, which I once detailed in this Catalyst article.   

There is a history of immigrants doing this in U.S. cities: Hispanic immigrants were credited with reviving south-central Los Angeles; Asians brought back pockets of Baltimore; and practically any other big city has its own examples. 

Luckily there are support networks of churches and non-profits that help with assimilation—including in metro Pittsburgh. I interviewed Becky Johnson, director of the Career Development Center at the Jewish Family and Community Services of Pittsburgh (JFCS). She helps immigrants and locals alike build skills so that they can find jobs or start businesses. Additional services provided by JFCS and other local immigrant support groups include language skills, home repair, and community events that connect people from the same immigrant groups. 

Johnson said that JFCS has helped immigrants from Nepal, Eritrea, Syria, Colombia, and many more nations—and that it is prepared to help Afghans. Once groups like this arrive, she says, they tend to cluster into pockets in the south suburbs or various city neighborhoods. 

“The refugee resettlement in this region specifically…is still pretty heavily focused on the metro area of Pittsburgh,” said Johnson.

She says the economic benefits brought by immigrants to Pittsburgh are irrefutable, with immigrant-owned businesses sprouting up citywide. The Keystone Research Center found that benefits brought to the whole state included $25 billion in annual spending power and $10 billion in federal, state, and local taxes, including $1.2 billion in the Pittsburgh region.

Yet Pittsburgh, interestingly enough, is not a big immigrant metro; immigrants only make up 3.9% of the population, which is extremely low (by comparison, Miami is 41%, Los Angeles is 33%, and New York City is 30%). Therein lies the problem: because Pittsburgh has not had a strong economy for decades, immigrants do not go there; and because immigrants don’t go there, its economy continues to struggle.

I do not support assimilation programs that force immigrants to certain regions as a condition for entry into America. A more market-based approach is to let them locate where they believe the opportunities will be most plentiful, rather than having the Biden administration dictate they are going to live. A place-based relocation program is, in fact, the current system for Afghan refugees, and Pennsylvania is among the recipient states. As long as that is the case, resettlement by Afghans into metro Pittsburgh and other hollowing parts of America should be viewed as a positive. 

Scott Beyer is the owner of Market Urbanism Report, a media company that advances free-market urban policy reform. He also writes columns for Catalyst, Governing Magazine, and HousingOnline.com. Follow him on twitter: @marketurbanist