Thursday, June 20, 2019

Short-Term Population Loss in the Adirondacks and Rural America

One way to dig deeper into the population dynamics at play in the Adirondack Park is to examine short-term population changes. The last article in this series looked long-term at total population rates where from 1970 to 2010 Adirondack communities grew at 10.6%, a rate that exceeded the 6.2% rate of New York State in these years.

In our report The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010 we examined population trends in a number of ways. One of the most interesting was our analysis of short-term changes in total population of Adirondack communities from 2000 to 2010 because it revealed the points at which the area lost and gained population.

In this report we aggregated the data of the 61 Adirondack Park Towns that are 100% within the Blue Line in order to compare Adirondack communities with other areas in the U.S. The purpose was to see if Adirondack communities stood out in any way from other places by studying trends of leading economic and population indicators from 1970 to 2010. In 2010, the 61 Park Towns had just over 100,000 residents, 77.4% of the Park’s estimated population of 130,000.

From 2000 to 2010, the 61 Park Towns experienced a loss of 1,218 people, dropping from a population of 101,824 in 2000 to 100,606 in 2010, a -1.2% population drop for the decade. What explains this drop in population? A breakdown of exactly where the -1.2% drop occurred in the 61 Park Towns is provided in the table below, which shows the changes in 5-year age groups from 2000 to 2010. This analysis shows losses due to the exodus of college age young people and mortality of older residents.

A total of 12,822 people arrived in Adirondack communities from 2000 to 2010 through births (9,694), by being brought here by their parents as young children (687), as young adults after age 25 (476), as career-age adults after age 30 (1,095), or as retirees after age 55 (870). These gains were offset by a loss of 14,040 people. These losses were seen in the departure of college age young people (4,587) and in the loss of older residents who moved away or died (9,453). Births and recruitment of new residents to Adirondacks from 2000 to 2010 was not high enough to replace these losses.

When we dig into the 61 Park Towns’ short-term population dynamics, there are three important points to focus on. The first is the loss of college-age young people. From 2000 to 2010, 4,587 young people in their late teens or early twenties left the Adirondacks. Most left for college, some for the military, and some for other reasons. In general, Adirondack secondary schools have high levels of graduates who choose to pursue a college degree. While, over 4,500 college-age young people moved away, it’s important to note that in this decade over 15,000 college-age young people either chose to stay in the Adirondacks after high school or decided to move here.

Second, the largest population loss in Adirondack communities from 2000 to 2010 was among older residents, where over 9,400 residents either moved away or died. The Adirondacks, like all rural areas in the U.S. in the first decades of the 21stCentury, has a high percentage of older residents. The population expansion during the famed “Baby Boom” generation after World War II saw significant gains in rural areas. The Baby Boom generation is now aging into a generation of senior citizens. As a result while rural areas in the U.S. today have just 15% of the country’s total population, rural areas have over 25% of seniors over 65 years old. The population in the Adirondacks, like that of other rural areas, skews older, but this is exacerbated by the fact that Adirondack communities recruit people of retirement age, while many other regions export their retirees.

The third point is that Adirondack communities recruited over 3,100 people who chose to move into the area from 2000 to 2010. Who were these people? In this decade, 687 arrived as young children after age 4. Presumably they did not come on their own, but were brought here by their parents. This fact runs counter to the claim that families with young children are leaving the Adirondacks as this group saw a net gain. Another point of population recruitment was with young adults after age 25 where 476 people chose either to return to the Adirondacks after college or to move here. Another 1,095 people made the same choice at ages 30-50 as career-age adults. That over 1,500 adults made the choice to move to the Adirondacks from 2000 to 2010 also runs counter to the conventional wisdom. When compared with other rural areas, the Adirondacks saw stronger rates of recruitment of working age adults than that of many other rural areas.

The net loss for this decade was 1,218 people. The challenge for Adirondack communities is that it appears that we’ve reached a point where births now roughly equal deaths among older residents. Recruitment of young families and working age adults does not recoup the loss from the departure of college age young people. Many questions face Adirondack communities. With such a small population, it’s important to  bear in mind that the decisions of a few hundred individuals and families can positively or negatively affect the population trajectories of Adirondack communities. This creates opportunities for Adirondack leaders to develop intentional recruitment programs that may be able to move the needle.

From 2000 to 2010, Adirondack communities experienced a slight -1.2% population drop. It’s important to note that this drop occurred at a time of significant population changes across the U.S. and Rural America. From 2000 to 2010, 44% towns, cities, boroughs, etc. in New York State experienced population losses, communities with 17% of the state’s population. Across the U.S., 35% of counties saw population losses, areas home to 14% of the U.S. population.

Losses were much greater in Rural America. From 2000 to 2010, 47% of the counties in Rural America experienced population losses, areas with 33% of the population of Rural America. Closer to home, 44% of the counties in the Rural Northeast U.S. lost population, areas with 47% of the population. Declining population is a major trend in nearly half of Rural America. Two trends dominate population loss in Rural America and these are the loss of college age young people and the mortality of older residents. These are inescapable rules throughout Rural America.

An analysis of short-term population trends from 2000 to 2010 showed that the experiences of Adirondack communities were consistent with trends across Rural America. The question for Adirondack leaders is how will Adirondack communities meet the challenge of slow population loss. If the Park’s losses continue at a rate of -1.2% per decade, which is questionable, the population of the 61 Adirondack Park communities would be around 95,000 by 2050.

In 2010, Adirondack communities were part of a vast Rural American landscape that is losing population. Because population decline is a major part of the Rural America experience, a number of strategies have been developed in various places to try and reverse these trends or even to embrace them. Rural academics in Iowa, for instance, have developed the “shrink smart” concept whereby rural communities proactively plan to grow more vibrant, build stronger community institutions, and build a stronger economy, even as they lose population. Another aspect of population trends in the U.S. in the first decades of the 21stCentury is that Americans are moving far less than they once did and that economic opportunity is but one factor among many that people consider when they choose to relocate. Many other factors, such as community amenities in the form of restaurants, cultural institutions, scenic beauty, recreational opportunities, social and racial diversity, the politics of an area, among many other factors, are major considerations when one makes the choice of where to live.

Adirondack leaders have been largely reactive to population trends, often pointing towards environmental controls as the culprit. This is a fundamental misdiagnosis of a challenge that is widespread across rural areas, which leads Adirondack leaders to chase false solutions. The silver lining in the population debate is that we’re talking about small numbers where the decisions of 100 people per year can change the population trajectory of Adirondack communities. One effort to investigate is a coordinated regional recruitment program where incentives are provided for people to move to the Adirondack Park. One part of this could be the creation of some form of clearinghouse for careers in the Adirondacks that identifies career options in the Park for people who dream of moving here and lists employment openings. Many employers in the Park talk about the challenges of finding long-term employees.

There’s not much that we can do in the Adirondacks to prevent the mortality of older residents. And while Baby Boomers as a generation saw enormous changes throughout their lives, and as a generation forged many of those changes, the reality is that over the next 20 years most of these folks will die or move away to assisted living or memory care centers. The question of changing the trend of major population loss of college age young people is more difficult. College options are limited within the Blue Line. And while we should all support goals of doubling the enrollment at Paul Smith’s College and North Country Community College, there’s a big world beyond the Blue Line and I know plenty of Adirondack parents who want their kids to get out and experience something different. I often hear from local leaders that the definition of a healthy community is that it’s a place where there is a job for a young person when they graduate from high school. And while that argument has merit, I’d supplement their definition with one that says a healthy community is a place that grows young people who possess a solid conception of who they are so that they can be whoever they want to be wherever they choose to live.

The next four articles in this series will go deeper into population trends by looking at  population changes by comparing age cohorts, median age, and the changes in the ratio of children to adults of child-bearing age.

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Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks. He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He was the co-founder of the Adirondack Lake Assessment Program (ALAP) in 1998, which has collected long-term water quality data on more than 75 Adirondack lakes and ponds. He has testified before the State Legislature, successfully advocated to pass legislation and budget items, authored numerous articles, op-eds, and reports such as "20% in 2023: An Assessment of the New York State 30 by 30 Act" (2023), "The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010" (2019), "The Myth of Quiet, Motor-free Waters in the Adirondack Park" (2013), and "Rutted and Ruined: ATV Damage on the Adirondack Forest Preserve" (2003) and "Growth in the Adirondack Park: Analysis of Rates and Patterns of Development" (2001). He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve. Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife, has two grown children out in the world, and enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Threads.

5 Responses

  1. Avon says:

    I’d like to see a version of this article that’s proofread by a statistician, demographer or accountant. And I can’t spot its main points or conclusions anywhere in this recital of statistics. The article seems to say repeatedly that the population of the Adks rose by 10% from 1970 to 2010, while falling by various percentages (depending on what difference there is between a “long-term” drop and a “short-term” drop over one identical time period) from 2000 to 2010. Maybe it has to do with the fact(!) that only three-quarters of the Adk population lives in “Adk towns” (i.e., towns that are 100% within the Blue Line)? Meanwhile, people’s actual experience throughout the Adks has been one of crowding or too much growth, though the lost old-timers are earnestly missed; at least, that’s all we usually hear about.

    I’d also like to know what’s been happening in the last decade. 2010 was a long time ago, when the Great Recession’s damage was greatest; I’d think measurements taken then are bound to be less meaningful now than those at any other time. And the Adks sure seem livelier since then. Obviously, this book is inherently “old news” in that it registers nothing less than nine years old. It takes time to gather and digest statistics, but still, we surely know a few more recent facts that ought to be considered alongside it.

    The second half of this article has some sensible and encouraging observations and recommendations that deserve prominence, not to mention wider attention. I’d really love to know if they’re in the book, or are just this very knowledgeable author’s own!

    • Todd Eastman says:

      Sounds like your preconceptions were challenged…?

    • Boreas says:

      New census coming up soon. That should help shed some light.

    • Peter says:


      Good points (as always), so thank you. You’re correct that when we took a long-term analysis of the 61 towns 100% within the Adirondack Park their population rose by 10%, but these same towns saw a drop of -1.2% from 2000 to 2010. Why this happened we can only speculate but one thing that future articles will point out is that this decade’s recruitment of retirees at 870 was lighter than other decades. I think that as the economy slowed and collapsed in 2007 – 2010 that a lot of people saw their retirement dreams delayed. I think that’s plausible. Other future articles will also show that we have a low birth rate and that we’ll see population contractions due to the mortality of baby boomers in 2020 and 2030.

      Your question about why we stopped in 2010 was partly answered in earlier articles and in the Introduction to the report, which provide two reasons. This study was a comparison of long term trends using the best data available, hence the 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010 US Census studies. Second, the mid-census estimates are not as robust for data, and not as strong for rural areas, as the decennial censuses. We’re committed to extending our analysis in 2022 or so when the 2020 census is completed. That will answer a lot of questions and may show (big question) that the population of Adirondack communities is back on the positive side.

      The report has a Final Thoughts section, where some of the thoughts in this article are stated in a longer version as well as a Recommendations section that includes even more ideas. The complete report is much better than these short articles.

  2. Avon says:

    Thank you, Peter. I didn’t even realize until the end that you were both author of the Adirondack Almanack article and on the team that did the research for the book! I also couldn’t tell from this installment that there had been prior ones (I assumed I was reading Section 1, when I saw that more were promised). Of course, I don’t see that it’s your fault that context was omitted from the article.

    I’m grateful for your concise, individualized reply – though I also feel a bit guilty about individually abusing your time/patience! I hope seeing it also helps others a bit. And it spares me the hours that would presumably be needed to read all the sections of the report plus its Recommendations section and Introduction, and correlate the points each separate section will make. (This installment alone took me 15-30 minutes to try to digest, as the facts come one at a time and require a keen eye to compare accurately, as you did now with the 10% / -1.2%.) I did think the Great Recession would be essential to understanding the 2000-2010 development and/or population trend, if it actually was relevant; so I’m glad you mentioned it as seeming important to you too.

    Very worthwhile, beneficial work! I’m already wondering what 2020 will bring (and I don’t mean to Washington D.C.), so I’ll look forward to seeing those numbers in 2019.

    In short, thank you!

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