Monday, May 2, 2011

Guest Essay: Lessons from the 2010 Census

What follows is a guest essay by Ken Strike, Professor Emeritus at Cornell University and member of the board of Protect the Adirondacks. Ken and Lorraine Duvall produced a demographic study of the Adirondacks following 2009’s Adirondack Park Regional Assessment (APRAP) report. The Almanack asked Ken, who lives in Thendara on the Moose River, to provide his perspective on the 2010 Census.

What does the 2010 census tell us about ourselves? The Adirondack population is basically flat with growth in some places and losses in others, and our population is aging. For some it has been easy to conclude that these demographics are the result of a poor economy and that this poor economy results from public ownership of land and the Park’s regulatory environment. However, a more careful reading of the 2010 census data tea leaves does not support these views. Rather, they suggest that we are much like other rural areas – in fact we’re better off than many. Our population dynamics also track the dynamics of the U.S. and NYS white population. No great surprise that. And they suggest that the Park is an asset, not a liability.Population changes are driven by birth rate, death rate, in-migration and out-migration. The connection between these factors and the economic health of a region is complex. Typically the cause of declining population is prosperity, not poverty. Japan is a wealthy country, but its population is aging and shrinking. Japan restricts immigration, and its birth rate is very low. Most sub-Saharan African countries, despite extreme poverty and a good deal of out-migration, are growing rapidly. Uganda’s population is increasing at about 3.5% per year. The fertility rate is 6.5 children per woman. Illiteracy and poverty drive population growth, not affluence.

New York’s population grew by 2.1%, from 2000 to 2010, but its white population actually declined as a percentage of the population whereas the Hispanic population grew by nearly 20%. Hispanic immigrant populations are younger, poorer, and less educated – factors associated with high birth rates. The white population of Essex County (which I will use to illustrate Adirondack demographics) grew by about 1%. Overall, Essex grew by 1.3% and its Hispanic population grew by 17%, but whereas the white population of NYS is nearly 60% of NYS population, it is almost 95% of the Essex population.

Changes in the Adirondack population may be driven as much by our birth rate as by in-migration or out-migration. In NYS (2009) the fertility rate for women between 15 and 44 years of age was 61.3 per 1000 and the number of live births per 1000 of the population was 12.6. For Essex County the same figures are 57.3 and 9.3. For Hamilton County they are 56.1 and 8.1. Adirondackers are not reproducing very rapidly. We are a predominately white population with the birth rate and demographics of NYS’s white population. The median age of the U.S. population is now 41 – close to that of Essex County. Doubtless it is higher for the NYS white population. One wonders how this might be blamed on the Park.

The gain of older people and loss of younger people may reflect the “pig in the python.” – baby boomers aging in place – more than migration. In the post WWII era the population of the Adirondacks grew substantially. (Much of this growth occurred after the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency incidentally.) In the 60s and 70s the pig in our demographic python was young. Our pig has aged. In Essex County the 45 – 64 age cohort grew 27% from 1990 to 2000 and 10.3% from 2000 – 2008. The population in the 25 – 44 age cohort declined 2.5 and 9.1 for the same decades. The decline for these decades of the 18 and under group was 1.8 from 1990-2000 and a whopping 22.1 from 2000-2010.

What we see in these numbers is not young families fleeing the Park because they cannot find jobs. What we see is young families who didn’t have a lot of children turning into older families who have even fewer. If there are factors about the Adirondacks that produce these trends, they are likely to be decent education, modest poverty levels, the absence of the in-migration of poor populations, and relative economic equality. We do, however, need to begin to attract young families since our aging boomers are not likely to replenish our communities with children.

The best way to gauge the consequences of the Adirondack Park for the local economy and demographics is to look at similar communities elsewhere that do not have our land use restrictions. Similar means rural, low population density, remote, and northern forest. Such places are found in northern Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, northern Michigan and northern Minnesota. Last year Lorraine Duvall and I produced such a comparison. (This study and an update can be found on the Protect the Adirondacks website). We found that our sample of Adirondack areas (Town of Webb, Hamilton County, and Essex County) were similar to or better off than our comparables on measures such as median income and poverty. A look at the map on the census website or the easier to navigate NY Times map shows that these areas have demographics much like ours. In fact, for the most part their population declines are steeper. Several of these counties have undergone severe population losses for 5 or more decades.

The 2009 Adirondack Park Regional Assessment (APRAP) report’s Executive Summary suggests that the Adirondacks are suffering demographic collapse and that we are on our way to being the oldest region in the country. This claim is charitably described as hyperbole. Most of the rural agricultural counties in the upper and central Midwest have had dramatic population loses and have higher median ages. The northern tier of counties in North Dakota, for example, all lost population with the exception of a county that is predominately Native American. All but one of the counties that lost population had a median age higher than ours. In most cases this population decline has been going on for decades.

The “hollowing out” of the Great Plains has been driven by mechanization and corporatization. Forty acres and a mule is now 10,000 acres and rented machinery. In the Adirondacks the decline in employment in extraction industries is largely driven by mechanization, foreign competition, and depletion. Our future is very likely tourism, retirees, and telecommuters. These are parts of our economy that are enhanced by the Park which makes our place a wonderful place to live.

The Blame the Park story line is not just wrong, it is counterproductive. It distracts us from asking the questions we need to address to build the economy of the future. We need to consider the amenities and infrastructure needed to attract people who will live here, stay here, be productive here, and sustain our communities. We need to ask about the kind of education that will enable our children to succeed here and return here. We need to start to think about what a tourist economy will be like when gas costs $10 a gallon (as it soon will). Census data may help answer some of these questions if we can look at them carefully with fresh eyes rather than through stale ideologies.

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at

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