If you want to scare the hell of out your friends at the big party tonight, go as a demographer.
Halloween came early for those who attended a two-hour forum entitled “Demographic Trends in the Adirondacks” in Albany on October 7th. The point was to unite researchers and policy-makers in facing the elephant in the North Country living room: our declining local population. The event was sponsored by the Rockefeller Institute of Government in partnership with the Adirondack Research Consortium, and ominously, the organizers described it as an “inaugural program." The phrasing was prophetic, for the findings were grim, and solutions thin on the ground.
Hamilton County, one of two situated entirely inside the Blue Line along with our sister county of Essex, is exemplary. We have lost nearly 12% of our total population, and a whopping 32% of those aged nineteen and under, in the last fourteen years, while our median age has increased by 18% (US Census Bureau 2000-2014). Two of our seven schools, Raquette Lake and Piseco, have closed in the same period, while enrollment is in doubt in the remainder. The North Country, in sum, is bleeding people, particularly young people, and according to the projections presented by demographers at this meeting, no turnaround looms on the horizon.
For those who remain, autumn brings painful cultural reminders of this predicament beyond the numbers. September means the beginning of a new school year, and many will wonder wistfully how much longer the school bus will continue to pass outside the window. October brings All Hallows’ Eve, and many will buy a big bowl of treats and wind up eating it themselves when no little goblins knock on the door. Signs declaring “Thanks for a great season, see you next year!” appear at intervals along our byways as businesses close their doors, and those that linger hunker down with a skeletal staff for the deep breath between the summer tourists and (maybe) the winter.
Ironically, Hamilton County is experiencing something of a demographic peak, at least in absolute terms. Census figures dating back to 1820 indicate that our total population has only exceeded 5,000 in the last few decades (1980-2000). While that figure has since dropped to 4,715 (roughly three people per square mile,) even that figure is impressive for a county which, while created geographically in 1816, remained under the administrative control of its progenitor Montgomery County for several more decades for lack of sufficient people to govern or be governed. We began small and have remained so.
Yet the devil is in the detail when it comes to demography. A community without children is one that literally cannot reproduce itself. On the other end of the scale, our remote location presents considerable challenges to our aging population - often our most active, experienced and committed community members - who face long drives across wide expanses to seek the services which become increasingly necessary for “aging in place.” Our emergency services will in time suffer from a dearth of workers capable of performing the intensely physical labor required for lifesaving efforts in a formidable wilderness climate. In the absence of natural increase, in-migration is the only vector for demographic recovery, but many of the same factors which push locals out prevent anyone else from coming in. These factors were only partially addressed by the Rockefeller forum, largely due to its two-hour time span, which called rather for two full days.
There was much discussion about how the government and the market might address these problems, but little discussion of what concerted action civil society - ordinary citizens - might take, and whether our long history as a small rural community might offer useable lessons in surviving the present crisis. Much blame was rightly laid upon the hyper-regulation of the Adirondack Park by the state at various scales, but few questions were asked about how “the market” itself may present more problems than solutions, particularly in the wake of the financial catastrophe of 2007-2008. While the issue of year-round, reliable jobs was placed squarely on the table, our dearth of year-round, affordable (especially rental) housing went largely unaddressed. The demography of diversity was raised, but not reflected. Not a single woman was included on the panel, either as a presenter or discussant, and only two women (myself included) in the audience were allowed to pose questions to the panel - an ironic state of affairs given both our upcoming suffrage centennial and the topic of the forum. Diversifying our tourist constituency was much discussed, yet no person of color was invited to participate, and it was left to an audience member to raise the question of access for the disabled. The issue of class was never even broached, a grave oversight in a region that has long earned its reputation as a “Playground for the Rich.” I will address these critiques in turn in further posts.
In short, while the forum was valuable, and I am grateful to both the Institute and the Consortium for taking the initiative, many questions remain, and they will not be answered by excluding the voices of those who might offer valuable contributions by virtue not just of identity, but experience. Nor can the Adirondacks, including Hamilton County, afford to wait another year and another forum in Albany to take this bull by the horns. The demographic crisis is here, on our doorstep. The Halloween metaphor is not overwrought. As a trained and seasoned social scientist with years of research experience, including in the Adirondacks, I’m not given to apocalyptic alarmism. Still it is difficult, even for me, to avoid wondering if history is soon all we will have left.
Our upcoming County Bicentennial presents an ideal opportunity to reflect on where our county has been, and where it is going, particularly in demographic terms. I'll offer some thoughts on how we might exploit this opportunity to practical effect in next week's post.