Are Adirondackers too old, or too white? Both.

Seniors at the Horace Nye Nursing Home in Elizabethtown, NY. (NCPR file photo)

Peter Bauer, head of Protect the Adirondacks, is sparking new conversation about the aging demographics of the North Country with an essay he published on his green group’s website.

(Hat tip to the Adirondack Almanack, which drew my attention to the article.)

The “myth” as Bauer describes it, is that the Adirondack Park is slouching toward a kind of geriatric end-game, where we’ll be too old to maintain community institutions, keep schools alive, and maintain a vibrant economy.

The “reality” in Bauer’s view is that we appear older than the rest of New York and America only because we haven’t enjoyed the wave of mostly Hispanic immigration that has infused younger families into other communities.

“The population of the Adirondack Park is overwhelmingly white,” Bauer writes.  “And the median age of white populations in New York and across the U.S. is significantly higher than for non-white populations.”

Bauer is correct in the abstract.  As we’ve noted here on the In Box before, many of the the most vibrant rural communities in the US are the ones that are attracting Hispanic immigrants.

But while the North Country’s economy succeeded a century ago in attracting waves of immigrants — Lebanese, eastern European Jews, French Canadians and so on — that’s just not happening now.

There aren’t jobs or industries here to draw a “second wave” of people to a new and better life in the North Country.

It’s also probably true that a broader cultural shift toward a warm-weather affinity makes our region a tougher sell even where jobs are available.

(I suspect that the economy of the northern US has been harmed more by the invention of the air conditioner, which opened up the South and the Southwest to migration, than by almost any other single factor.)

Still, Bauer’s essay fails to grapple with this question.  If the “new” and younger America is more multi-ethnic, more Hispanic, why aren’t we tapping into that?  And what does it mean for our future?

It’s worth noting that NCPR’s reporting has also found strong evidence to support the conclusion that a lot of young people who would like to remain in the North Country find it difficult to do so.

So while the lack of immigration may be the larger factor — I think Bauer is right about that — the “lived” experience of the Adirondacks is still one where many people see young family members forced to move away to find jobs, opportunity and advancement.

Whatever the cause of the Adirondack Park’s aging, the fact that we are greying to a troubling degree is significant.

Obviously, this has become political football, difficult to talk about intelligently.

Opponents of the Park’s environmental regulations have sometimes offered a simplistic narrative, claiming that green-red tape is the single largest factor (or even the only factor) killing our future.

As Bauer notes, there is very little evidence to support that claim.  Communities located in the North Country outside the blue line fare, in many cases, much worse than those within.

But it’s also true that supporters of the Adirondacks’ ecological framework have often tried to sidestep some home truths.  Many of our most important “hub” towns are greying rapidly, losing infrastructure and services at an alarming rate.

The allure and quality of life provided by the Park’s vast green spaces — and the promise of a wilderness-based tourism industry — just haven’t produced the jobs and investments and sustainable communities that many hoped for.

So yes.  We’re whiter than the rest of the America, which means we’re older than the rest of America.  And if we don’t find answers, we face the same dire future that similar communities across the US are confronting.

My hope, articulated many times before, is that the Adirondack Park’s robust institutions — including the APA, Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages, and green groups like Bauer’s Protect — will help us to avoid that fate, or at least shape it.

My worry, however, is that we will continue to quibble over why we’ve reached this dangerous point, deferring the hard work of finding workable, realistic solutions until it’s too late.




53 Comments on “Are Adirondackers too old, or too white? Both.”

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  1. Rancid Crabtree says:

    I agree Knuckle. Where we disagree is in how to solve the issue. To me the answer is offering people the opportunity to succeed through their own efforts. Others prefer to use legislation and punishment to move certain groups forward and others back, all while lining their own pockets with money and power.

  2. mervel says:

    Don’t forget St. Lawrence county and Franklin County are both partially in the park.

    It is not a Park issue, it is an upstate/Northern New York issue.

    The Park is part of upstate New York and simply mirrors the same challenges as face any of the other dying villages and communities in Northern New York. The Park helps the communities within the Park, it does not hurt them.

    I think we can all feel better now that we know no good paying oil jobs will come anywhere near here, the 10% unemployed in St. Lawrence County can rest easy that they have a great state government to take care of them.

  3. Peter Bauer says:

    Hey, I’m not saying school funding is not a problem. All I’m saying is that across NYS Adk schools fair better with current funding formulas, though not nearly as well as the Long Island districts represented by Republicans in the State Senate. On the grand scale of unjust funding and impoverished schools in NYS — one of the great scandals of our time — the Adks schools are on the top side and not the bottom of the scale. And this in no way is meant to diminish the tough choices Adk schools are facing.

    Now back to population numbers.

    It is worthwhile to dig into the pop data here because it tells a story that is different than the conventional wisdom.

    I just looked, albeit briefly, at NYS, Essex and Hamilton County population numbers by age for 2010. Here are the percentages. You can see this info here:

    2010 NYS % Essex% Hamilton%
    5 years – 9 6.00% 4.80 4.80%
    10 years – 14 6.20% 5.60% 5.10%
    15 years – 19 7.00% 6.40% 4.50%
    20 years – 24 7.20% 5.20% 3.60%
    25 years – 29 7.10% 5.70% 3.80%
    30 years – 35 6.60% 5.80% 3.60%
    35 years – 39 6.50% 6.00% 5.20%
    40 years – 44 7.00% 6.60% 5.70%
    45 years – 49 7.50% 8.00% 8.30%
    50 years – 54 7.30% 8.40% 9.00%
    55 years – 59 6.40% 7.80% 10.50%
    60 years – 64 5.50% 6.80% 9.00%
    65 years – 69 4% 5.50% 8.00%

    So you can see that Essex and Hamilton are lower for younger kids, but not terribly so, from the NYS number. A wider discrepancy comes into play for college years and persists through the 30s, but the gap closes.

    What about kids leaving for college/military? I did not crunch the numbers for Essex County and only have incomplete numbers for Hamilton, but Hamilton County sent away 143 kids (?) from 2005-6 thru 2009-10 to college or the military, local kids who may not have been counted in the HC 2010 census. Lots of unknowns on the fate of these kids, but if you add them into the equation and HC tracks much better with earlier cohorts and state average. Data here

    Also, note that while NYS sees relatively no change from 15-19 to 20-24, there are lots of upstate counties in NYS that see drops, similar or greater than the Essex and Hamilton drops. A quick check, without computing, finds drops in Tioga, Steuben, Sullivan, Yates, Wyoming, Westchester, Wayne, Schuyler. And there are surely others across the state. Note that there’s no Park to blame in these counties. So it could be that this dynamic is an upstate NY dynamic. I wonder about other rural U.S. counties? (This is really interesting and merits a closer look some day.)

    Some upstate counties with colleges, after the quick check, spike up, like Tompkins and Seneca.

    Also, note that something else important happens. Starting around age 45 the Park population % starts to beat the NYS %. Seems to me that that’s the Park that draws these people here. A quick look shows that other NY rural counties don’t get this benefit.

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