Straight talk about the decline of America’s rural North

For years now, a regular theme in our reporting on the North Country’s economy has been the exodus of young people from our towns and villages.

It’s an issue that has become a battle cry for more conservative, pro-development groups.

The Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages points to the Adirondacks’ aging population as a sign that regulation and zoning rules are choking the life out of the economy.

“When you get into the interior, that age bracket, the 20-50 year olds, has really dropped off significantly,” said Brian Towers, town supervisor in Wells.

“The real concern is that when you look at the heart of the Park, some of these communities are seriously stressed.”

The right-leaning New York Post argues that high taxes and regulation are driving people away in droves.

“The US population is fleeing to the South and West, where taxes are lower and the business climate more friendly,” howls a recent editorial.  “Thank tax-and-spend government for that unhappy news.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo has taken up this banner, arguing that low-taxes and more innovative economic development strategies are needed to revive Upstate New York.

“We have the worst business climate in the United States, the worst!” Cuomo declared, during a recent visit to the region.

I think all these factors deserve discussion and debate, but I also think this issue has been politicized in ways that cloud the real challenges we face.

Put simply, most of rural northern America faces the same decline, from the conservative, regulation-free Great Plains states — South  Dakota is home to the nation’s poorest county — to the battered towns of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Right next door to us, Vermont is struggling with a rapid decline in its school-age population, with K-12 enrollments statewide dropping by more than 1% a year.

When congressional redistricting is finished next year, almost every state that loses influence in Washington will be a northern state with a sizable rural population.

When I was born, more than half of the nation’s population lived in the Midwest and Northeast.   Now that figure has dropped to just 39%.

So what gives?  Why is the country shifting its center of gravity away from its Northeastern roots?

Economics play a role, to be sure, but I’m convinced that there are far bigger factors shaping our future.

The first is something we can’t do anything about:  weather.

The US has been evolving into a sun culture for half a century.  Thanks to the advent of air conditioners, which opened the steamy South and the sun-drenched Southwest to development, people are choosing a snow-free lifestyle.

The rise of a Hollywood media that prefers sun to snow has accelerated this cultural shift.  Increasingly, when Americans look at themselves in the mass-media mirror, they don’t see Currier and Ives.

They see sun and sand.

Another huge factor is the rise of America’s Hispanic population, a trend which the rural North has largely missed out on.

Sure, Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Texas are absorbing some of our fleeing snowbirds.

But that trend is all but eclipsed by the much larger tidal wave of Hispanic immigration (a trend compounded by higher Hispanic-American birthrates).

Those of us “left behind” in the Northeast are having far fewer babies, with birth rates so low in some rural counties that we are literally aging ourselves into extinction.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t try to compete with other parts of the US.  We should do everything possible to make this part of the world attractive, affordable, and competitive.

In some cases, that might mean deregulation and tax cuts.  But it might also mean developing new models for government-private sector partnerships, boosting the quality of our schools, and finding innovative ways to incubate small, locally-rooted businesses.

I think we should also look closely at the political, cultural and economic factors that have caused the Hispanic community to largely avoid settling in our communities.

But we should also be realistic about the kind of tectonic demographic change that America is experiencing.  The simple truth is that our region will never again be the geographic, economic or cultural center of the US.

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56 Comments on “Straight talk about the decline of America’s rural North”

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  1. Pete Klein says:

    I could live in Colorado if I were up in the mountains. Denver weather is too goofy. Below zero one day, then in the 50’s the next. I know we get that sometimes but they get it once or more per week.
    The South? I could never live any place where the high temperature competes with the high or higher humidity.
    I did enjoy the weather in San Diego when in the Navy. Hardly ever hot or cold and during the winter I could look east and see snow on the mountains.

  2. oa says:

    The sprawl-malled mountains are more overrated than Denver.

  3. Mervel says:

    Wyoming is where its at man.

  4. oa says:

    Sheridan, baby!

  5. Bret4207 says:

    Oh boy, pretty strange that Mervel, OA and I all agree on what seems to constitute a pretty attractive place to live, although I’d be well away from the city and not quite in the mountains proper. Of course a bazillion other people think the same thing, so I doubt we could afford to move there.

  6. oa says:

    We agree on more than you think, Bret. It’s just when you go off to Beckland in your comments, it drives me nuts. But that’s kind of the point of your going off to Beckland, I think. So it’s all good.

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