Wednesday, August 18, 2021

2020 US Census: More Than Half of All US Counties Lost Population

Among Adirondack Park leaders, blaming the Park, the Forest Preserve, environmental protections, and environmental groups, is fashionable. Population trends are often cited, along with things like school district trends, to substantiate this narrative. Hardly ever do local leaders attempt to place Adirondack population or school district trends in a statewide or national context.

The US Census allows us to assess what’s going on in the Adirondack Park in a statewide and national context. The US Census just released its first cut of the 2020 decennial census. This data is very informative, though we’ll know more in late September when town-level data is released, and we’ll learn even more in 2022 when age and race data along with economic data is released.

The limited US Census data released tells us a few things that are important for the Adirondack Park and New York State. New York State gained over 800,000 new residents from 2010 to 2020. The actual 2020 Census count was substantially higher than the annual estimates by nearly 750,000 people, which was a pretty big discrepancy.

In New York, 39 out of the state’s 62 counties lost population, and all of them were in Upstate New York. The 39 Upstate New York counties that lost population, which includes nine of the 12 Adirondack Park counties, are part of a vast geography in the U.S. that saw population losses. The US Census reported that around 1,660 out of the roughly 3,140 counties in the U.S. lost population from 2010 to 2020, around 53% of all counties in the country. This number is unprecedented and is something that we’ve never seen before in American history.

The number of counties that saw population declines from 2010 to 2020 rose dramatically from prior censuses. For the 2020 US Census it appears that 1,660 counties saw population losses, compared with 1,082 counties across the U.S. that saw losses from 2000 to 2010. That’s a huge increase in areas of the country experiencing population loss.

In 2000, the US Census told us that 84.3% of the 282 million Americans, some 237.7 million people, lived in metropolitan areas. It increased to 85% in 2010. In 2020, the rate increased still higher to 86.3% of the 331 million Americans, 285.6 million people, lived in metropolitan areas. This was an increase of nearly 48 million people over the last 20 years, while rural areas grew by just 1.1 million people. In the last 20 years, for every 1 person that decided to move to, or get born in, a rural area in the U.S., 48 others made the opposite choice and aimed for life in a metropolitan area. That marks a continued intensification of the number of Americans choosing to live in metropolitan areas in the U.S.

The initial 2020 US Census county maps for the country tells this story (see below). Much more data will come out in the next two months that will tell us a lot more about raw population gains or losses at the town level and among rural and metropolitan counties. Once the full suite of age, sex and race data becomes available in 2022 that will provide Adirondack Park leaders with much more accurate information to assess long-term trends locally and regionally across the Adirondacks and compare how we stack up against other rural areas in the Northeast U.S. as well as the whole country. Most importantly we’ll be able to determine who it is that is coming to or leaving Adirondack communities.

The initial 2020 Census data doesn’t allow us to assess population gains or losses specifically in Rural America. In 2010, 1,941 counties were counted as rural counties. Given the population gains in and around major metropolitan areas, a handful of rural counties may have grown into a metropolitan status and were reclassified as part of the 2020 US Census. The big question will be how many of the 1,900 or so rural counties saw population gains or losses. In 2010, 47% of the counties in Rural America reported population losses since 2000, compared with 37% of all U.S. counties. While we don’t have the data, and can only speculate, given that 1,665 counties, 53% of all counties, saw population losses, it’s a good bet that there will be far more rural counties in 2020 that experienced population losses than the 941 rural counties that experienced losses in 2010.

For those who are busy crafting population recruitment strategies for the Adirondacks and North Country, the competition from other rural areas is growing in a big way. In my count of the initial US Census maps, there were at least 1,655 counties outside the Adirondacks that lost population from 2010 to 2020. That means there a lot of small towns, lots of counties, and lots of regions around the U.S. that are looking at many different ways to try and attract and recruit new residents. When it comes to population recruitment, Rural America is all singing the same song.

Across the Northern Forest, which stretches from Tug Hill in New York to northern Maine, most of the counties that are similar to the Adirondacks lost population. All seven of the northern Maine counties lost population, totaling a loss of over 12,000 people between them, though some counties saw minor losses. In New Hampshire, Coos County in the far north lost over 1,700 people, and in Vermont the three counties in the Northeast Kingdom, combined for a loss of over 1,200 people. By contrast, Cumberland County in Maine, home to the City of Portland, gained over 21,000 new residents. Hillsborough County in New Hampshire, home to the City of Manchester, gained over 22,000 people. Chittenden County in Vermont, home to the City of Burlington, gained 11,778 new residents. As we saw in a previous article, Upstate New York counties with larger cities also gained population.

Some losses and population shifts across the U.S. were truly remarkable. In Iowa, the state’s population grew by over 150,000 people, yet 68 out of its 99 counties lost population. In Kansas, which grew by over 90,000 people, 80 out of its 105 counties saw losses. In Nebraska, which grew by over 150,000 people, 69 out of its 93 counties saw losses. In Ohio, which grew by over 225,000 people, 56 out of its 88 counties saw losses. In West Virginia, 47 out of 55 counties saw declines as the overall state population dropped. In Illinois, 87 out 102 counties saw losses, as the overall state population dropped. In Mississippi, 64 out of 82 counties saw losses, as the overall state population dropped. The U.S. has never had three states lose population before in a decennial census.

One general rule of thumb in the initial 2020 US Census numbers is that small population counties with 50,000 people or less mostly lost population and high population counties gained. The 10 biggest population centers in the U.S. all gained population from 2000 to 2010. It appears that the trend of population increases in metropolitan areas is accelerating and intensifying.

The 2020 Census data was largely gathered at the beginning of the COVID19 outbreak, which as we all remember, began in pockets of the Pacific Northwest and Northeast USA before spreading to the whole country throughout 2020. There’s lots of anecdotal information about the effects of the COVID19 pandemic on the decisions of Americans about where to live, but we do not have a lot of concrete data on permanent changes. While outdoor recreation numbers jumped along with the number of short-term rentals in rural areas in 2020, whether COVID19 has changed school populations or boosted rural populations are open questions.

To confront the major issues facing rural areas like the Adirondack Park we need to get beyond blaming the Adirondack Park or the Forest Preserve or environmental protections for our population challenges. I’m pretty sure that there was no APA and no forever wild Forest Preserve in the more than 1,655 counties across the U.S. outside the Adirondack Park, over 50% of all counties in the U.S., that experienced population losses over the last ten years.

There are many places across the U.S. that are in the same boat as many Adirondack communities. Our landscape combination of mountains, forests, and abundant water may be unique, but there is nothing unique about the population challenges that we face. It’s simply the reality of Rural America in 2020.

The challenges facing Adirondack communities should be seen as part of a larger trend facing rural areas in the U.S. and not something driven by particular state policies. The Adirondack Park has long suffered from a misdiagnosis of the causes of our population challenges, which has led many to chase false solutions.

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Peter Bauer

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 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 and two children, 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 Twitter.


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15 Responses

  1. Zephyr says:

    Or, instead of fighting upwind and upcurrent maybe Adirondack communities should embrace the new reality and figure out how to make the most of it. There are lots of rural places in the world that have become successful seasonal towns instead of year-round towns. Though I am sympathetic to communities that feel they are dwindling maybe that should be looked at as a good thing with regard to preserving what is “forever wild.”

    • JB says:

      Zephyr, I like your thinking about embracing reality. There is so much politically motivated “business vs. Park” ideology out there that is preventing people from being able to admit just how financially fortunate Park towns are right now compared to rural towns elsewhere. To those who drive through Park towns daily, it is not difficult to see that these places are very different than your typical rural town in the Midwest, instead being much more akin to the gentrified, space-limited resort-towns of the Mountain West. The saving grace for these Park towns is that it is not too late for APA and local zoning regulations to fight the tides of gentrification.

      I grew up in one of those rare, small and rural upstate NY tourist towns outside of the Park (you could probably guess) that has managed to remain a decent place for families to raise their kids. There have been no mega-corporate developments supplanting thousands of acres of farmland, like that which the past 15 years have brought in Saratoga and Mongomery counties, yet population and cost of living have remained relatively stable. And all of this has been because of a local zoning board steered effectively for decades by one particular woman, who has saved the town.

      That can happen with the right leadership and vision; it is just that we do not have this in the APA, and most (luckily not all) Park towns have embraced a devil-may-care, business-first, tourism-first, bureaucracy-first, community second attitude. Rather than partnering with groups like the Northern Forest Center’s Common Ground Alliance (whose handiwork can be seen in places like rural Northeastern Maine where post-COVID gentrification is running rampant in the absence of any controls) or newborn pro-business local special interest groups (ROOST and many others that have not had any track record on dealing with gentrification), balkanized Park town governments should be talking to organizations in the Mountain West or Canada or Europe that have had experience with maintaining resident populations and small-town character despite tight land constraints (from surrounding no-development public lands) and high gentrifying transient population pressures (over-recruitment). All too often across many aspects of our society, bureaucracies drive themselves into the ground by virtue of being too stubbornly embedded into status quo.

      • Zephyr says:

        JB, every place I have lived (a lot of places) has been driven by the business community to embrace the growth at all costs mantra. I’ve noted that ironically most of the businesspeople retire to Florida after they’ve reaped their large incomes in the local community. However, you can now also find businesspeople who have learned that environmental awareness can go hand-in-hand with making money. For example, realtors have seen studies that indicate properties that are walk-friendly and have nearby trails sell for much more than properties without. With climate change now forcing people to realize that changes need to be made places that require hopping into a gas guzzler will face new challenges. I would argue that the future is in more urbanization of “wilderness” areas. Places like Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, and Tupper Lake may grow as cities surrounded by wild nature that people want to experience, while the town provides the sidewalks, stores, and community that people crave too. I suspect we will find that these small communities actually grew even when the surrounding county population is shrinking.

        • Vanessa Banti Vanessa B says:

          Brief thought on this thread: I want to you guys know that reading your comments on this topic has made me think about it from a new angle. This is valuable! (And a bit rare, lol.) So thank you and kudos to you both. 🙂

          That said, I think a certain smattering of permanent residents contribute significantly to the quality of a tourist town. Imo, as an “ideal” tourist town, Lake Placid for example suffers due to the real estate speculation and craziness we have been talking about on other forums. You need a certain level of basic infrastructure (hospitals, local govt and services) for tourists to feel comfortable. Not to mention all of that infrastructure for the residents that support the tourists.

          For example, a while back we vacationed in Wilmington with my uncle and his hiker bros, one of whom broke a tooth while we were there. Super major kudos to the local dentist who fixed his tooth on a day’s notice. My uncles friend paid out of pocket, but he went on his hike the next day. Everyone won.

          Imo the infrastructure for perm residents also makes the region more popular for anyone. When my parents visited, I was super surprised how scared they were of seasonal roads, for example. I’m an outdoorsy girl in my off-road compatible Subaru, and was laughing a bit about their concern of being on a gravel road without cell service. For many of us, that’s adventure, but for a certain type of tourist, cell service is super necessary.

          • JB says:

            Thanks, Vanessa; I also come away from these “discussions” more wise and contemplative than when they began!

            My latest reply to Zephyr was not necessarily discounting what either of you are saying; urbanization is good, it is just that I do not believe that we can rely on “market forces” to bring about the coalescence of rural populations into well-planned urban centers with public transit, sustainable infrastructure and “eco-zoning”, especially given the supply-demand issue (urban sprawl seems to be a feature of modern society left to its own devices) and the fact that local and federal government are actually working against any possible semblance of a market correction (however scant or infeasible) of urban sprawl and gentrification with the absolutely unheard of monetary policies of the past decade (outside of Japan, of course) and the massive subsidies of rural areas (driven by the way political sway is distributed in this country as opposed to others). Even in the Park, without broad policies to address the ongoing Aspenization necessitated by its own rudimentary, albeit revolutionary if properly fleshed out, premise of restrictive zoning, “market forces” could essentially overpower an ill-equipped APA in its quest to protect wilderness character from sprawl and towns from development. (If you really want to delve into this: think about the implications of the observation that most preserved wilderness in the world is arguably a legacy of feudal nobility serving as the primary preventers of the Tradgedy of the Commons and, in a liberal class society, government must somehow act as decisively as the unpopular noble arbiter to protect the commons.)

            So, in summary (for now), there needs to be some kind of unified front against these destructive and incohesive (of wilderness, of the working class) currents, on all levels–in an ultra-mobile, ultra-connected, ultra-fragmented behemoth of a society, we cannot expect a tug-of-war to end gracefully without injury to its players and without breaking the rope and trampling the earth. And right now, I feel like most of us are just voices in the wilderness (no pun intended).

            • JB says:

              Correction: “market forces” could essentially overpower an ill-equipped APA in its quest to protect wilderness character from sprawl and towns from *gentrification*.

        • JB says:

          Zephyr, you have there some very astute observations. It is problematic that Americans have developed a tendency to demonize urbanization, a trend exacerbated post-COVID-19, when, in reality, our population growth of the past century has closely tracked and arguably been facilitated by urbanization. The majority of people in this country have never lived outside of a greater urbanized area, and if they had, we would likely have no Adirondack Park and the Northeast’s second-growth forests would not have been largely abandoned to regrow.

          The problem is that the exodus from top metropolitan areas, even in the decades leading up to the pandemic, has created massive urban sprawl and even birthed new sprawling developments in previously extra-exurban areas, inducing a type of snowball-effect. This is where the map is not the territory: counties can lose population overall while the most ecologically important resources are turned into housing or commercial plazas. In fact, American counties are merely arbitrary boundaries that should not reflect demographic trends unless artificial efforts have been made to bring about that effect. Worst of all, the United States does not have the kind of precedent for managing rural development that, for example, many European or Asian countries have.

          In the United States, despite the astonishing lack of measures designed to protect rural areas in order to facilitate the kind of “green urbanization” that you speak of (local governments and businesses do not generally have a good ecological and anti-sprawl track record), we have a very high potential for rural development pressures to overwhelmingly coalesce due to the unique combination of our political structure (single-member districts), our strong federalism/balkanization, a high motorization rate and a highly developed motor vehicle infrastructure, and a strong back-to-nature movement. This, combined with the demonization of urbanity largely driven by seekers of political and financial fortunes, has the potential to lead to a society that features the wholesale destruction of ecosystem services and a sprawling population that is environmentally and financially expensive to maintain–a land of dystopian and unadministered desakotas rather than one of utopian and highly-integrated regenerated urban islands. A somber example that comes to mind when I see rural-recruitment campaigns is the Maoist “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement” wherein an exploding population of young urbanites was demonized and “strongly encouraged” (coerced by the state) to relocate to the countryside, creating an environmental and humanitarian disaster. The point is not that American institutions are analogous to those of the Maoist regime, but that strong ideologies and mass political, economic and cultural movements are typically not capable of foreseeing the real-world consequences of their own agendas, and thus, they should not be beheld as our cicerone guides and the architects of our society.

          Ultimately, in the imbroglio that is America, wherein the only cogent dream is rapidly becoming a life lived in exclusive castles of solitude, places like the Adirondack Park will be essential bastions of ecological integrity and need to be protected as such. Rather than adopting an apophatic view of the Park, wherein the negative focus upon the Park for what it is not forces us to abandon the prospect of organized administration successfully replacing wandering happenstance, it is paramount to develop a cataphatic view wherein we focus on the overarching vision for the Park as a positive prerequisite towards realizing its full potential benefit to local residents and society as a whole. That is my takeaway here, and I believe that articles like this one serve an important function as broad counternarratives to the coming rapturous jamboree of fear-mongering that always follows in the wake this type of data, which after all is collected and released so that power and money can be distributed and people can clash heads and compare swords. But struggle and competition are as foundational as cooperation to all human societies, and all we can do is channel these forces towards productive ends.

  2. Lee Nellis says:

    Thanks as always, Peter, for doing the work to document what every watcher of Rural America knew would be the result of this last Census. We have to wait for the data on the towns to be released before saying much more about the Adirondacks.

    I started watching these data after the 1970 Census. Is that not as long ago, as I feel like it was? Because the stories have not changed enough to notice in 50 years. A whole new generation of rural people are repeating – in some cases verbatim – the story about Rural America that I first heard in, when, 1973.

    I am a rural person by both birth and inclination and, with brief exceptions, have managed to make living in small towns work. That’s not a criticism of those who are distressed. I see you. What I don’t see is a willingness to change the underlying narratives, including those Peter identifies, that account for the distress.

  3. Boreas says:

    I am always depressed at the number of family farms that are eaten up by mega-corporations. Century-old family lands now being worked by GPS enabled robots. Homesteads leveled. No love of the land, just love of profits.

  4. Vanessa Banti Vanessa B says:

    100% spot on here, Peter. This is a macro-trend effected by economics at the federal and even global level.

    Hell, imo, I have always wanted to live in the ADKs because I think the region is less prone to these trends *because* of the park. You’ll always have hippies like me who want to vacation and live in the woods. The ADKs have a super unique (and frankly, more climate proof than most regions in the country) set of draws. There are also urban centers close enough by that certain industries will stay strong, like tourism and whatever goes with second home ownership (real estate? Cleaning services for the AirBnBs?).

    To conclude – I am of the perhaps unpopular opinion that the park protections put the region in a better position than rural Iowa or North Dakota, etc. but yes, to Peter’s point, this phenomenon will *have* to be handled at a macro level, and in my silly opinion, the state and especially federal level. This is a federal problem and federal legislation essentially addresses it already (look at the COVID relief bills). Federal subsidies hold up all sorts of elements of the rural economy, and not that I know too much about this, but I believe that’s been the case for much of modern history.

    Finally, the following is far afield but I am happy to get into it on a thread: IMO, climate change combined with continued technological advancement is going to accelerate this issue, not decelerate it. Absent govt intervention, this situation will get even more pronounced.

    • Lisa L says:

      I was very impressed by the thoughtful nature of the comments presented here before I read this article. I am responding in this post, as Vanessa seems to mirror many of my opinions. I grew up on the outskirts of the Catskill Mountains and moved to the “North Country” as soon as I was able. I love the ability to immerse myself in the woods because of the wilderness the Adirondack Park provides.

      These thoughts may seem disjointed…because I am passionate about the Adirondack Park, which has been at the core of many important memories I have of my lifetime. Here are some of my opinions:

      It is nice to see some discussion regarding our local communities and how we can use the uniqueness of our environment to support the community rather than try to change it into something it is not. I agree that the environment around us helps to defray the effects of climate change although you can see the forest is struggling.

      I live just outside the park, due to the proximity to my work, and feel blessed by the opportunity to enjoy all that the natural environment has to offer. I support the communities near me to the best of my ability, shopping in Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, because of the proximity to my home. Two of three professional appointments that my family has scheduled are in these areas as well. The Wild Center is a favorite destination for me and their support of educational opportunities during the Covid-19 pandemic was amazing.

      Zephyr speaks of the housing crisis in the area. I agree this is a problem as many service workers cannot afford to live in (or visit) the communities that they work in (ie. kitchen staff, hotel workers, etc). At the same time, VRBO’s allow some residents a means to support themselves and remain in the community. There needs to be a thoughtful balance of zoning to support all levels of local economy. (Like the question of whether you would like a penny and have the amount doubled every day OR a million dollars…if we strive to only support the elite we have missed an important, and large, part of the market available to businesses.

      I would be concerned regarding carving too much into tiny home lots as this may promote increased conflict with wildlife by creating “nuisance” wildlife situations but it is a good point that development on a large property that supported a number of small buildings in closer proximity while maintaining a section of the property as wild might be possible. This could even be a good way to restore previously used lands to a more wild state by developing some of the property and restoring trees and native plantings on the rest of the property.

      Thank you for the positive opportunity to share some ideas.

  5. Zephyr says:

    One obvious quandary is the housing shortage while the population is shrinking. This seems to point to what many of us believe is happening–second home owners have moved in, but they don’t really live in the Adirondacks. Add to that the huge explosion in tourism and you have the contradiction of a smaller permanent population, but more people on the ground, especially in the summer.

    • Zephyr says:

      One simple thing that could be done is to embrace the tiny home concept in zoning and allow very small lots, closer spacing, less parking, etc. in towns, along with mother-in-law apartments and multifamily homes. When I was growing up lots of large older homes had been converted to multiple apartments supporting multiple families, and today almost all of them have once again become huge single-family homes, with many owned by out-of-towners or people doing short-term rentals. I really don’t understand the idea of requiring huge lots meaning that every development must be massive with no central core, no sidewalks, and endless roads leading nowhere except to another minimansion. And many aren’t so mini!

      • JB says:

        Zephyr, I hear you all the way on combating sprawl. The problem is that there are two fronts along which sprawl needs to be fought: firstly, preventing gentrification of the urban core, which drives workers outwards, but also just as importantly, preventing urban densification, which drives everybody outwards. In places like Park hamlets, surrounded entirely by restrictively zoned expanses that absolutely must be protected, both of these goals are very difficult to achieve–essentially, some strong artificial constraints must be enacted upon resident and transient populations.

        Right now, that quasi-population-constraining force is real-estate price (Aspenization). This is not worker-friendly, and thus, a small number of places, like Aspen, CO, have attempted to develop the only hitherto proven alternative: workforce housing. To do this, institutions that have tight control over the local (and sometimes regional) economy must basically intervene by, with careful calculation, giving priority to such projects and denying others–in our case, the candidate for this would be APA, which begs the question: are towns sufficiently close to the precipice that they will accept some imposed limits upon economic activity, or will the deluge of resultant tax funding from gentrification lead to complacency despite the plight of the historically working-class resident?

        Finally, one problem that I have failed to mention is that the workforce housing programs are not a resounding success. They have not typically completely prevented sprawl nor gentrification, and they can often create some pretty dismal places to live. These types of units are often similar to tenement housing, with one very important difference: true workforce housing, especially in an over-recruited marketplace like the Adirondacks, must absolutely be mandatorily reserved for local workers, otherwise the entire economic justification is moot. Nonetheless, reserved multi-family housing in a carefully planned urban core can be an improvement over the alternatives. On the other hand, clusters of tiny houses peripheral to an urban core are not nearly as efficient, maintainable or desirable (especially in an Adirondack climate), yet one does not need to go far to find such “ad hoc workforce housing” outside of the Park: find your local Walmart, and the nearest trailer park will not be far away.

  6. R.L. Stolz says:

    As usual, your observations are astute Peter. This is the big picture that sits above, and to a large degree, governs the many local concerns addressed here. All stakeholders would do well to realize that control over many issues discussed here is beyond local policies. The next time someone is inclined to blame the “other side” maybe a moment of consideration for factors outside our influence would be helpful. We live in

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