Monday, June 3, 2024

2020 Adirondack Population Trends Mirror Rural America

Conversation in the Adirondack Park has long been dominated by the belief that local land use controls under the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) Act and the abundant public land mass in the Forest Preserve drive local population trends. This, of course, is a myth and not reality. There’s power in myths, and sometimes there’s truth in myths, but mostly there’s a lot of myth in myths. There is nothing unique or locally-inspired about the population trends in the Adirondack Park and North Country. No matter how much one may dislike the 52-year-old APA land use controls or the 139-year-old Forest Preserve, the population trends playing out today in the Adirondack Park and North Country are the same as those playing out across the great majority of Rural America.

The recently released data from the 2020 US Census lets us spotlight population realities in Rural America. As outlined in the 2019 report The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970 to 2010, there are 1,941 “rural” counties in the U.S. Comparisons of Adirondack Park trends to averages or trends for New York State or the U.S. in general don’t tell us much, but comparisons with Rural America can tell us a lot.

The US Census has a variety of measures and criteria for classifying a county as “rural.” Based on Census classifications, 24 of New York’s 62 counties are considered “rural,” including seven of the 12 Adirondack Park counties such as Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Fulton, Hamilton, Lewis, and St. Lawrence. Other Adirondack Park counties may have large portions of rural areas, but they are within significant population (metropolitan) areas like Glens Falls-Saratoga Springs or the Herkimer-Utica-Rome area. From 2010 to 2020, only two of New York’s “rural” counties posted population gains – Hamilton County and Sullivan County.

The 2020 Census was noteworthy because it marked the first time in American history that half of U.S. counties saw population losses. Yet, even more striking, and pertinent to Adirondack Park communities, is that across Rural America the number was much higher, as 66% of all rural counties lost population. From 2010 to 2020, the U.S. population increased to over 334 million, gaining over 22 million Americans. At the same time, the population in the 1,941 counties in Rural America was stagnant and experienced a net loss of just under 37,000 residents, dropping from 47,767,634 in 2010 to 47,730,728 in 2020. The 1,941 counties of Rural America extend across 68% of the continental U.S. yet contain just 14% of the country’s population. See map below.

The 2020 US Census data for the 1,941 “rural counties” that constitute Rural America shows seven specific trends that mirror those playing out in the rural communities of the Adirondack Park and North Country. While many decry these trends as unique to the Adirondack Park, the data tells a much different story. From 2010 to 2020, the US Census found that among the 1,941 counties in Rural America:

  • 88% experienced a decrease in children 0 to 4 years old (see map at top of page). Collectively, Rural America lost over 371,000 people in this age cohort.
  • 72% experienced a decrease in children 5 to 17 years old. Collectively, Rural America lost over 303,000 people in this age cohort.
  • 72% experienced a decrease in young adults 18 to 24 years old. Collectively, Rural America lost over 292,000 people in this age cohort.
  • 59% experienced a decrease in adults 25 to 34 years old. Collectively, Rural America lost almost 59,000 people in this age cohort.
  • 67% experienced a decrease in adults 35 to 44 years old. Collectively, Rural America lost over 264,000 people in this age cohort.
  • 88% experienced a decrease in adults 45 to 64 years old. Collectively, Rural America lost over 811,000 people in this age cohort.
  • 96% experienced gains in adults 65 to 84 years old. Collectively, Rural America gained over 2 million people in this age cohort.

As shown above, the great majority of Rural America saw losses of children, young adults, and career-age adults yet made gains in retirement-age senior citizens. If this sounds familiar, it should, because these trends have been dominant for the last 40 years and are intensifying in the Adirondacks, Upstate New York, and throughout Rural America.

The post-World War II years saw an unprecedented growth in the U.S. population from 1945 to 1965. The famed Baby Boom generation is now almost fully entering senior citizen status. The Baby Boom population explosion was especially prevalent in Rural America, where millions of children were born and raised, but who then left Rural America in droves as young adults in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s for life in America’s cities and suburbs. The Baby Boom population explosion filled rural schools for decades, as Baby Boomers moved from elementary school to High School, but this generation moved away in great numbers during their working lives. The Adirondacks shared in this rural population explosion and we’re now sharing in its contraction as population patterns in the U.S. have markedly shifted.

The exodus from Rural America over the last 50 years has created a seemingly enduring trend in American life where the bigger population areas are getting bigger and smaller population areas are getting smaller.

Just look at the top 100 counties/places by population in the U.S., from Number 1 Los Angeles County, with over 10 million residents, to Number 100 District of Columbia, with over 689,000 residents. Among the top 100 largest counties in the U.S., 97 counties saw population growth from 2010 to 2020. The top 100 counties gained over 12 million new residents, more than one-half of the country’s total gain in the last decade, and in 2020 these places were home to over 40% of the total U.S. population. Only 12 of the top 200 counties by population in the U.S. saw population losses  2010 to 2020, while the Top 200 combined for growth of 16.6 million new residents, 75% of the country’s total gain, and in 2020 were home to 57% of the U.S. population. Just 6% of U.S. counties held 57% of the U.S. population. The top 13 counties in the U.S. by population had 50 million residents in 2020, which is more residents than all of Rural America combined.

The trend of big places in the U.S. getting bigger has been a dominant trend in American life for decades and is now intensifying. The flip side of big places getting bigger is that small places are getting smaller. The smallest 500 counties by population in the U.S. combined for a loss of 93,000 people from 2010 to 2020. These are mostly places like Hamilton County in the central Adirondacks. According to the US Census, Hamilton County had 5,100 residents in 2020. The 500 smallest counties in the U.S. range from Chouteau County in Montana, with 5,895 residents, to Loving County in Texas, with a population of 64. The smallest 1,000 counties in the U.S. by population had 8.3 million residents in 2020, less than Los Angeles County, and from 2010 to 2020 experienced a net loss of 372,000 residents. By contrast, LA county gained 195,000.

These population trends in the U.S. are especially acute for Rural America in general and our corner of Rural America here in the Adirondack Park in particular. One trend to note is that while the 1,941 counties of Rural America saw drops in their populations under age 65 from 2010 to 2020, their population of residents at age 65 years old and older jumped by 31%, increasing by over 2 million. This growth stems from an older population aging in place and from the high number of people who grew up in Rural America, who left their hometowns for careers in other places, and have returned as retirees.

The growing high population of older residents is a wave that is unlikely to crest anytime soon, but it will eventually play out as many in our large senior population will not be here in 20 or 30 years. If present trends continue, the reality of smaller and smaller cohorts of children and young adults, combined with the mortality of Baby Boomers, will continue to steadily shrink populations of small communities across Rural America decade after decade. These trends will be difficult for individual communities to alter or reverse, and they will continue to shape and reshape rural areas like the Adirondacks and North Country, as well as many other small communities across the country, for decades to come.

Blaming the APA or the Forest Preserve may feel good, and it may even have some political benefits, but it’s a misdiagnosis of our population challenges, and it does nothing to help us understand the root causes of our local population trends or where we’re heading in the future. If we do not understand the realities of American life in 2024 that drive our national and regional population trends, our efforts to manage these changes and build stronger and more vital communities, even as we get smaller, will be unsuccessful.

Photos provided by the author.

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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.

30 Responses

  1. Lee Nellis says:

    Thanks for the update, Peter.

    I spend a lol of time traveling and corresponding with people in rural communities where there is a perception that Federal or (in the ADK) State land use restrictions are the cause of the local demographic and economic distress. And yet, in some of those places there is a positive community vibe and action addressing the issues. In others there is, to be honest, mostly whining.

    Adirondack communities vary, but mostly fall into the positive camp, at least as I see it. The difference is not in the impacts of the trends, which are almost universal. The difference is in the narrative.

    Places that cannot transcend the traditional narratives about regulation and property rights, or even more so, about the way the economy is (and has for many years) been structured, tend not to prosper (a relative term as I am using it here, a positive vibe doesn’t guarantee success). Places that embrace diversity, including a diversity of perspectives, also tend to do better. None of that has to be partisan even though people try to make it so. If there was a consistent way to compare, I’m pretty sure that the least partisan places would show up as the healthiest.

    What Rural America, including the Adirondacks, needs is leadership that is willing to let go of a lot of assumptions and create a new narrative.

  2. Paul says:

    I am not sure that 2020 census data is very relevant anymore. A lot has changed about US demographics over the last 4 years. During the pandemic people did not continue to flee rural areas like indicated in the 2020 census data. The opposite happened. They left urban areas, and they haven’t come back. Lots of people moved to more rural areas and just stayed there.

    • Boreas says:

      Good point, Paul. Too bad we won’t know for a while…

    • Bill Keller says:

      The USDA agrees, “After a decade of overall loss, the U.S. rural population is growing again, with growth of approximately a quarter percent from 2020 to 2022. The rural population is also experiencing declines in poverty, with 9.7 percent fewer nonmetro counties in 2021 experiencing persistent poverty compared with a decade earlier”.

  3. louis curth says:

    Peter concludes with; “If we do not understand the realities of American life in 2024 that drive our national and regional population trends, our efforts to manage these changes and build stronger and more vital communities, even as we get smaller, will be unsuccessful.”

    Now, today’s headline on NPR states: “RURAL U.S.HEALTH CARE IS IN A CRISIS”.

    So how about we have a discussion about our Adirondack population’s growing deficiencies, and face up to what our lack of accessible, affordable, adequate health care is doing to us and how are we going to fix it?

    Many of us are hurting in one way or another. Tim Rowland alluded earlier to problems stemming from drug addiction. For our rapidly growing elderly population with limited resources, there is not adequate help for them by anyone’s measure.
    For young men and women struggling to live here and raise families in a low wage gig economy where inflation is devouring their pay and benefits, many are being forced out. We have barely dented the severe lack of affordable housing, childcare needs, spotty internet service, and travel expense that is holding us back. We are facing a decline in volunteerism for emergency needs like fire and rescue that is unsustainable. Fact is that we depend upon each other for all the many basic needs that a functioning “community” depends upon to thrive, and, as people age out, we are losing them.

    For a successful future, our Adirondack region must “build back those stronger and more vital communities” NOW!

  4. Zephyr says:

    One thing’s for sure, everyone better vote for the party that wants to strengthen and improve Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid or the Adirondacks will suffer an economic catastrophe with the growing 65+ demographic. Yet, I don’t see that happening in the North Country.

    • ADKresident says:

      If you actually think any political party right now in DC, after witnessing both of their failed track records, believe, let alone trust, that they would do anything differently than what they’ve been doing for decades, let alone any of what you have listed above, you are sorely mistaken. Very few are genuinely ‘for the people’; their collective actions have proven otherwise. And, if the last few years have not proven the obvious, in-your-face failures and mismanagement of our tax $ with endless waste and zero fiscal or job performance accountability, then I do not know what it will take to wake people up.

      No, the one thing that’s for sure: It’s time to ‘rethink’ where and whom we put our confidence in because if we continue to do the same thing (ie. trust either party in Albany or DC) and expect different results, we are but fools. (While they continue to say and do whatever the hell they want without having to answer to their bosses, the people, whom they are supposedly working for.)

      • Balian the Cat says:

        This is my favorite/the most authentic thing I have read here in a long time.

        • Mike V says:

          I would agree. It never takes long for many of these conversations to digress to swamp level by dragging in what DC can do, won’t do, should do… The simple formula for success is this: jobs = population. I left NY in 1982 because all of the mills and mines could no longer operate under whatever regulation existed at the time. There were no jobs. As I travel back, the towns I grew up with are now just shadows of their former self. It is sad. As I have moved around I have seen where local governments, through tax incentives, have provided for relief to allow for new companies to expand and grow, thus providing jobs. Recently the county I live in here in NC partnered with a major defense contractor to put in a plant; starting salaries are around $75,000 a year. Suppliers are now moving to the area; more jobs. It can be done in a way that balances both growth and preservation. NYS just needs to figure out how to do it, both outside, and inside the Blue Line.

    • Paul says:

      If it is the democrat party you are referring to, if they care about strengthening and improving these programs, why do they keep spending money in a way that will ensure they all go broke eventually.

      Also, that party has got to stop supporting the insanely high tax rates we have in NYS. That demographic you mention can only afford to live in some areas of the Adirondacks if they are very rich.

      I say raise the retirement age a few years for those not yet born. That would save the system and make it would strengthen and improve things better than anything. This dated system was designed when people had to, and or wanted to, retire earlier and lived much shorter lives.

      • Todd Eastman says:

        You could consider Texas as it has most of your wish list already in place…

        … and lower heating costs…

        … though the summers are reputed to be a wee warm…😎

      • Zephyr says:

        The Trump era tax cuts alone cost trillions of dollars that all went to the wealthiest among us. When a billionaire pays a lower tax rate than an ordinary working person something is wrong. You can vote for more giveaways to the wealthiest or you can vote for supporting ordinary working people who rely on Social Security and Medicare in their retirement, which some also want to cut short in order to allow a tiny few to purchase megayachts.

        • Paul says:

          The benefits to middle income American’s will also go away with those if we decide to do that.

          It’s not as simple as you would like.

          • Carol says:

            How would they go away? Supply-side economics has been found to be a total failure, but the myth that it somehow helps all Americans stubbornly refuses to die.

  5. louis curth says:

    Peter Bauer’s essay about the downward spiral in rural population shows the growing danger our Adirondack communities are facing as our human resources become more fragile. There have been some pretty good reader responses (14 last count).

    As an aside to Melissa, et al: I just wish that the great journalistic work you all do here at Ex/Al would culminate in giving readers a kick in the pants that motivates us to want to do more than just comment. Help us to focus with a plea, a call to action, an editorial, or something befitting those of us who love this wild Adirondack place. And please, please, do more followups on important stories and events that will give us hope for a better future.

    In other words, stir readers and commenters desire for a better future. Make them want to get involved in activities where they can do things and get their hands dirty. This, to me, is the most important step in building “community”, and it is how we get the real jobs done, clean up our persistent political corruption, and build the working partnerships that will keep our Adirondack communities healthy and strong. As an added benefit, many people will make new friends, be less isolated, less lonely, and may just have some fun too!

    We are losing our young people here in the Adirondack region and this must not continue! Let’s all try harder to make our democracy work the way it should for our communities, for our people who need help, and especially for our young folks who are the bright future of the Adirondacks.

  6. Carol says:

    It is distressing to me that anyone would blame the APA or the Forest Preserve. Our country desperately needs MORE wild areas, not fewer! Both light and sound pollution are out of control in much of the country. Even where I live, on the outskirts of Plattsburgh NY, there is way too much noise and especially way too much light at night. I cherish every chance I get to visit the Adirondack Park and enjoy the wonderful fresh air and the relative quiet and darkness. If the Adirondack Park were even to be legislated out of existence, it would be a huge and devastating loss to the entire country, especially New York State.

  7. Todd Miller says:

    The map confuses me. The areas in white are unidentified in the Legend. Do the white polygons represent counties with insufficient data? counties with major urban centers?, counties with 0.0% change? (but according the percent ranges shown in the legend, it can’t be counties of 0% change because the red counties start at 0% and the green counties also start at 0%). What percent of the population is represented by the white areas. If these unidentified white polygons represent counties with major unban areas, then it would be useful to have shown the values of ranges of % change in another color.

    • Boreas says:

      Very confusing! My best guess was red and green did not actually include “zero” change (only “approaching” zero), and white indicated statistically “zero” change. Not the best graphic legend for sure.

  8. JohnL says:

    I’m just a Central New Yorker who enjoys that Adirondacks when I can, which is a lot less in my (much) later life. I’m just wondering what do people that live in the Adirondacks REALLY want? More or less people? After reading about the general subject of population often in the AA, I’m more than a little confused.

    • Balian the cat says:

      As a “foothiller” I would suppose what any of us wants is quality of life, JohnL. I honestly don’t know why all debates on this and every other forum usually wind up about the same 3-4 bones of contention, but I suspect most americans/humans want the same thing – Community that feels safe and caring, clean air & water, a place for our kids to thrive, employment opportunities, and space to roam. What each of those things looks like specifically is probably based upon individual norms, but basic needs, the opportunity to expand beyond them with honest effort, and a peaceful place to do all that seems a good place to start?

      • JohnL says:

        I certainly agree about the quality of life Btc, but it seems to me that the quality of life in the North Country (for ADK folks anyway) is based on less, or at least, no more, people, and that means that things like new employment opportunities will be limited. I guess, it boils down to this… do the residents of the Adirondacks want the same way of life to continue or do you want to ‘grow’. I’m not saying this well, but hopefully you get my drift.

        • Balian the cat says:

          I’m pickin up what you’re laying down JohnL and see now that my first response ignored the premise of your original question. Skiping past, good naturedly, Boreas’ suggestion that we want it “all”, I guess I am not sure ADK folks can have their ideal vision of quo or fewer people PLUS all the conveniences of modern living. A reluctance to let go of the notion that the old ways (mass good paying employment in industry/logging/paper mills, etc.) is unlikely to return is a stubborn restraint on moving forward, in my opinion. US history is loaded with examples of towns gone bust because the thing that sustained them ran out. It might come down to the fact that we will have to accept a new “thing” or become partial to tumbleeed in certain parts of the park. One thing for sure and I dare presume we’ll agree on this – waiting for the government (any configuration thereof) to figure it out would be folly.

    • Boreas says:


      We want what everyone wants – good jobs, good infrastructure, good schools, good healthcare, affordable high-speed internet, and fewer bugs – but no taxes. That ain’t askin’ much.

  9. Paul says:

    The largest population center in the Adirondacks (Saranac Lake) was three times as large as it is now in the past. A few more people is not going to change the character of the place much. There are things like a critical mass for places like schools etc. if the trends continue (assuming this is still accurate) the place is on a slow burnout for full-time residents. Sure it can sustain a seasonal character based on those of us that make our living elsewhere but that isn’t the same as a thriving full-time year round community.

  10. Joan Grabe says:

    In the short 16 years I have been a summer resident in the Adirondacks I have seen the town of Saranac Lake change from a dilapidated, tired town to an active, and grooving community. Two large hotels open, reconstruction and paint jobs, not enough parking………… I would like to give Sandra Hildreth and her group of artist friends who started the Plein Air Festival much of the credit for this revitalization. In a short time we will have a new Trudeau museum thanks to Amy Catania and the folks at Historic Saranac Lake and a new Pendragon Theatre in “downtown” Saranac Lake. Our independent hospital is thriving which is crucial, the schools are in good shape. Of course I still have to drive miles to get the NYTimes but my mail gets delivered now. So perhaps the arts are the day to go to start revitalization.

    • Boreas says:

      I am hoping the new rail/bike corridor breathes some new life into Tupper Lake and the central ADKs. With both rail and bike trails terminating in TL with ongoing snowmobile access, Tupper has an excellent opportunity to capitalize on the trail. But it is going to take some visionaries in the area AND in Albany working together to take advantage of the tourism opportunity. I hope they exist. We’ll see…

    • Paul says:

      Joan, is it the Sunday Times? There are a few places in town that will get it for you.

      I agree these changes have been positive. But I am still concerned as I watch the size of the HS class drop from what it was when I was in school there. Even 25 years ago we had 140 kids graduate from HS now we are down to like 90. This is with adding geographically to the district.

      • Alan R. says:

        My class of 1979 was Massena’s largest: 420. Now they average 185! There’s probably no recovery from such a decline.

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