What is it going to take for the government of this city to realize that we need more things for young people to do in Pittsburgh? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

What is it going to take for the government of this city to realize that we need more things for young people to do in Pittsburgh?

Question submitted by: Matthew C. Goodnight Sr.



For starters, it's going to take more young people voting.



Last fall, there was a lot of talk about the increased participation of young voters in the presidential election. But the real test will come in this May's primary. Off-year elections are when local governments are chosen, and turnout for younger voters in such elections is abysmal.


A few statistics, provided by Chris Briem at Pitt's University Center for Social and Urban Research, prove the point. In the last off-year primary, spring of 2003, less than 7 percent of eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 29 cast ballots. Just under 12 percent of voters in their 30s did. By comparison, nearly 40 percent of voters in their 70s cast ballots in 2003.


What that means is that in spring 2003, voters between 18 and 40 cast only about one vote of every eight. The over-60 set, meanwhile, accounted for nearly one vote out of every two. This despite the fact that people over the age of 60 make up less than a quarter of Allegheny County's population.


Those are countywide figures, but the problem arguably becomes more acute when we focus on the city alone. Briem reminds me that during the last mayor's race, in 2001, a grand total of 16 votes were cast in the Oakland precinct that includes Pitt's dorms. That's right: 16. More students than that turn out to sit on the wall across from the "O" even on partly cloudy days.


Why is turnout among young people so bad? One reason is that many young people living here are in college, and college kids often feel less invested in the communities where they go to school. (You don't see WVU kids setting fire to couches back home, do you?) Too, the primaries are held May 17. This year, that's a week after final exams at Carnegie Mellon University are over, and more than two weeks after students have gone home from Pitt. And in a one-party town like Pittsburgh, if you're not here for the primary, there's not much use showing up for November.


Young people have played a role in decision-making, of course. Many policy proposals are made in the interests of "keeping our young people in town." Often, however, these policies are really just older people's ideas of what young people will like -- and they fit you about as well as the sweater Mom buys you for your birthday. Exhibit A is the late-1990s campaign to build new stadiums for the Steelers and Pirates. Has it worked? The fact that, well, you had to ask this question suggests the answer. Many of today's young people were in grade school the last time the Pirates had a winning season. And the waiting list for Steelers season tickets is so long that, by the time a young person gets a chance to buy them, he or she isn't a young person any more.


In fact, the very premise of your question may be flawed. I have yet to talk to a single person, young or old, who left Pittsburgh because they couldn't find something to do for fun. I do, however, know of many who have left because they couldn't find work.


Still, at least one of this year's mayoral candidates, Bill Peduto, has put young people at the center of his campaign. (Indeed, given the juggernaut that is the Bob O'Connor campaign, it's sometimes a little hard to tell if Peduto has any other constituency.) Peduto's Web site, for example, boasts of his "Guyasuta Fellowship" -- an ongoing effort in his city council office in which "young Pittsburghers are given the opportunity to work on solutions to important challenges facing our city."


Why bother, when young people vote in such small numbers? Because in 2001, Tom Murphy won the mayor's race with fewer than 33,000 votes. That's smaller than the number of Pittsburgh residents between the ages of 20 and 24, whose population, according to the 2000 Census, was 34,578. That group alone, in other words, could anoint the next mayor.


My guess, however, is that it will probably go out for a few beers instead. Just to have something to do.

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