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DN Editorial: The minus touch

Gov. Wolf’s plans aim to halt Pa.’s alarmingly shrinking population & future

IF WE Philadelphians have a fault, it's that we put our blinders on when it comes to the rest of the state.

That's a mistake. We are the state's largest county, but there are 66 more. We are all in the same boat called the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and our fate locally is linked to the state's.

Gov. Wolf understands this. His budget proposal doesn't target one area over another. He wants to create a rising tide for everyone, regardless of whether they live on Venango Street or in Venango County.

The Wolf plan essentially has three pillars: tax reform (swapping higher state taxes for lower local property taxes); an investment in the future with increased aid to education; and pro-business tax relief, coupled with strategic investments by the state in fledging industries.

If there is an urgent tone to Wolf's pushing these proposals, it is because he's aware of the reality of Pennsylvania today. A stagnant economy means a stagnant state. It's a story that can be told using different numbers - job creation, unemployment rates - but population growth and decline is as good as any.

The recent numbers about continued population growth in Philadelphia made the front pages; it is a signal that the city is headed in the right direction.

A look at five years' worth of population data released last week by the Penn State Data Center paints a broader picture. Between April 1, 2010, and July 1, 2014, Philadelphia's population increased by 34,291, a 2.2 percent increase. This is three times higher than the growth rate of the state as a whole. A very good showing.

It's a different story in much of the rest of the state. In the past five years, 42 of the state's 67 counties have suffered population declines. Overall, the state grew by only 84,325 people to put our population at 12.7 million.

Instead of dividing the state into red and blue, the Data Center tells the story in pluses and minuses.

The "Plus Zone" begins in Philadelphia and runs in a broad swath 190 miles to the west, until it reaches Centre County, the home of Penn State. Montgomery, Chester, Lancaster, Lebanon, York, Dauphin and Cumberland counties all experienced above-average population growth, equal to or greater than Philadelphia's, in terms of percentage.

There are a few more "Plus" counties in the state, but the "Minus Zone" is vast.

For instance, Venango County, which sits just below Erie, lost 2.6 percent of its population in the past five years. Many of these counties were prosperous and growing in the past. But, the industries that defined them - oil for Venango, hard coal for Lackawanna and Luzerne, steel production for Westmoreland and Cambria - are long gone.

Places such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh remade themselves after the old industries faded away. Other counties, especially those in central Pennsylvania, went from farmland to sites for 21st-century businesses.

The rest of the counties are waiting for a better day. And that day may never come.

Wolf, who served as revenue secretary under Ed Rendell, understands better than most the vital role that state government must play in helping each county and city and small town find its way into a better future. Yes, that means the more prosperous counties helping the needier ones. Yes, that means involving government in creative ways in promoting growth.

The alternative is a state that not only has a Minus Zone, but also is minus a future.