Rust-Belt Babushkas Live Alone as Fewer Remain to Marry
Since Allison Sturm’s husband died 10 years ago, her friends and children visit at her apartment in Cincinnati. She says she still feels alone in the city.
“I don’t like being lonely,” Sturm, 79, said in an interview while shopping at a pharmacy. “I can’t find anything better than what I’ve got.”
Rust Belt residents like Sturm are more prone than ever to live alone thanks to an exodus of families that leaves behind widows and widowers and young singles. Urban areas on the east and west coasts including Atlanta, Seattle and Washington, D.C., have long drawn flocks of careerist singles. Now, 10 of the 25 cities with the highest percentage of people living solo are Midwestern industrial enclaves including Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, according to 2010 Census data.
That may create a burden. As Americans live longer, the elderly require more expensive medical help and benefits from a younger population. It also reflects insecurity: Younger people are delaying marriage and child-rearing until the economy provides a sounder footing for their careers.
Metropolitan areas with higher percentages of younger and more skilled and educated single households will have a substantial advantage, Richard Florida, director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, said in an e-mail. Older populations challenge economic development, he said.
The percentage of U.S. households that consist of one person has almost quadrupled since 1940, rising to about 27 percent from about 8 percent. In the Midwest, the numbers reflect the manufacturing collapse of the 1980s, which led to a higher-than-average percentage of elderly residents and a generation of depressed housing prices.
Atlanta and Washington were tied at 44 percent for the highest percentage of one-person households. Cincinnati, known as the Queen City, ranked third in the nation with 43.4 percent of its 133,420 households consisting of single people, according to Census data.
That’s probably the result of families leaving for suburbs starting in the 1970s, combined with an influx of young professionals to the central city, where University of Cincinnati and Xavier University students also live, said Jeffrey Timberlake, an associate sociology professor at the former.
“Single people are almost like the pioneers moving back into what were starting to become abandoned central cities,” Timberlake said in a telephone interview.
Cincinnati-based companies, including Procter & Gamble Co. (PG), the world’s largest consumer-products maker, and Kroger Co. (KR), the largest U.S. grocery chain, are hiring young people who gravitate to the trendy Hyde Park area and new downtown apartments, said Lee Robinson, owner of CincyRents and Robinson Sotheby’s International Realty.
The city’s rental market is “hot as a firecracker,” with less than a 2 percent vacancy rate among the 1,500 properties that CincyRents leases or manages, Robinson said in a telephone interview.
Singles in their 20s and 30s who come to Mount Adams Pavilion in Cincinnati, a bar with patios featuring skyline views, are focused on their careers. Fewer marry out of high school or college these days, Danny Krzynowek, the general manager, said in an interview.
“Their jobs come first,” said Krzynowek, 37. He said he is single because of the hours he works.
Pete McKee, 26, said he’s had little time for dating because he’s been working six-day weeks of as long as 60 hours as a mechanical engineer in Cincinnati.
“It’s kind of the boat I’m in right now,” McKee said in an interview over a Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale and a cod dinner at a pub in the city’s Hyde Park Square, a magnet for young professionals in a neighborhood where about 66 percents of households are single and the average age is 34.
Part of what is driving the Rust Belt’s increase in single households is the decline in population as factories closed, Timberlake said. In 1900, Cincinnati was the nation’s 10th largest city, with a population of about 326,000. In 2010, it was the 62nd largest, with about 297,000.
Pittsburgh, former capital of the nation’s steel industry, has seen its population drop by more than half to about 306,000 since 1950, according to the 2010 Census. The government said 41.7 percent of households consist of one person, the sixth-highest rate in the nation.
“The Rust Belt exodus of the 1980s robbed Pittsburgh of a generation of family households,” Jim Russell, a geographer who studies the relationship between migration and economic development, said in an e-mail. “Parents and would-be parents left in large numbers. Those who stayed aged in place.”
Pennsylvania ranked 38th among states and the District of Columbia in job growth in the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States from the first quarter of 1995 through the fourth quarter of last year, the most recent data available. Only Michigan fared worse than Ohio.
Now, about one in eight Pittsburgh households is occupied by a single elderly person, the fifth-highest among U.S. cities. Russell said a significant share of the single households consist of elderly women, or what he calls “Rust-Belt babushkas.”
In Akron, Ohio, which ranked 35th among U.S. cities in 2010 with 34.8 percent single-person households, 78-year-old Doris Colbert said she can’t afford to move out of her apartment. Even so, Colbert said prefers to live alone instead of with one of her children.
“I feel like I’m a fifth wheel,” Colbert said in an interview. “Besides, would you like my old fogy friends coming around?”
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