This morning as part of our Vanishing Youth series, I interviewed Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer at the Carsey Institute, a rural-policy research group closely tied to the University of New Hampshire.
As Johnson makes clear, the population trends that are reshaping northern New York aren’t unique. Much of rural America is struggling to retain its younger members, and in many areas the fight has reached a sort of tipping point.
In counties across the Great Plains, researchers have long seen a trend called “natural decrease,” where so many young people have departed (and the remaining family-age folks are having fewer kids) that deaths outnumber births.
Beginning in the 1990s, that same painful phenomenon began to be felt in rural counties in New York.
In 2010 — the latest year that I could find complete statistics — three North Country counties were in negative territory, with Essex, Hamilton and Warren counties seeing more funerals than baby showers.
Other counties in our region are expected to experience this same “downward spiral,” as Jonson describes it, in the decades ahead.
During the 1990s, the “natural decrease” problem was concealed in part by an uptick in immigration to rural areas, but after 2000 Johnson says the number of people choosing to move to small towns dropped by half.
Without babies, and without immigrants, a lot of communities face a bleak future.
This is dreary stuff, but it bears thinking about as we make decisions shaping community life in our region. As Johnson writes, the trend “has implications that reach far beyond demography to institutions that are the bedrock of communities.”
Schools, volunteer fire departments, churches, basic government services, taxes, medical care — they will all be reshaped.
So are these warnings of things that must be, or merely the predictions of things that might be? Could some of our small towns spark a youth renaissance, and buck the national trend?
Johnson suggests that some communities in the North Country might have the assets and the opportunities to reverse, or at least mitigate, some of these demographic pressures.
Our region’s natural beauty and our relative proximity to big urban areas (when compared with, say, North Dakota) already offer some foundations that communities are already building on.
Johnson also thinks when the recession finally ends, a lot of retiring baby boomers might look eagerly to regions like our as a comfortable, high-quality and affordable place to retire.
That won’t solve the youth problem, obviously — indeed, it might accelerate the graying of some towns — but it will give some small towns a new influx of vitality.
Johnson argues that real success will require regional efforts by clusters of communities, to build infrastructure, develop marketing, and raise their profile as an attractive place to live.
It’s important to note again that this fight isn’t ours alone.
The entire state of West Virginia is now in “natural decrease” territory, and the state of Maine is also expected to eventually see more deaths than births in most year as that rural state ages.
The question going forward is which communities and regions across small town America will find solutions that offer a sustainable future with more cradles than coffins.