Rural counties suffered the sharpest population drops in New York since 2010, according to census estimates released Thursday, the latest sign of a long-running exodus of people and jobs.
Counties with the highest rate of loss in the nine-year period include Chenango (6.5%) and Delaware (8%) outside the Binghamton area, according to the 2019 population estimates. Sparsely populated Hamilton County in the Adirondacks posted a state-high 8.8% drop, a loss that's felt in the quaint town of Indian Lake.
“We don’t have the younger people,” said Indian Lake supervisor Brian Wells. “Our volunteer fire department is in trouble. We’ve had to go to a paid ambulance service; then you’ve got to raise the money with your tax dollars.”
Experts say rural areas are caught in a mutually reinforcing down cycle in which businesses shutter and people move away.
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Far from surrendering, rural schools are expanding offerings for families through food pantries and taxi vouchers. Health care providers are expanding telemedicine services to patients. And some farmers are mixing it up by trying newer crops like industrial hemp.
But many of the efforts aim to mitigate the effects of population loss instead of reversing it. The broader problem is knottier and more persistent.
Former Gov. Mario Cuomo mentioned “the abject poor of Essex County” in his famous 1984 speech to the Democratic National Convention (he later apologized). Eliot Spitzer, in his successful 2006 run for governor, said the stretch between Niagara Falls and Schenectady “looks like Appalachia” (he did not apologize).
In 2000, Hillary Clinton targeted votes upstate for her successful Senate campaign with a pledge to create 200,000 new jobs. The unfulfilled promise was highlighted by candidate Donald Trump in their 2016 presidential contest.
Those same areas are still recovering from the Great Recession. Twenty-nine counties — all but one upstate and mostly rural — had lower private-sector employment in mid-2019 than they did at the same point in 2007, just before the recession, according to analysis of employment data by the Empire Center for Public Policy.
“It's a story of decline, more or less steady decline, at varying rates depending on what areas you're in,” said E.J. McMahon, research director for the fiscally conservative think tank.
There are bright spots. Yogurt maker Chobani employs about 1,000 people at its central New York plant and upstate office. Alcoa continues to make aluminum on the Canadian border with state incentives.
But the overarching story is about loss: fewer manufacturing jobs and fewer farms. There are even fewer prisons, a longtime durable source of rural employment. Business closings and layoffs tied to the current coronavirus outbreak are expected to create even more economic upheaval.
The New York counties that lost people at the fastest rate since 2010 are heavily rural, including Essex (6.3%) in northern New York, as well as Chemung (6%) and Chautauqua (5.9%) along the Southern Tier. Many of these same areas are coping with dropping school enrollments, a sign of fewer families with children. In Delaware County, the school district in Andes declined 39% to 73, according to state education data.
Andes Superintendent Dr. Robert Chakar said having nine students in a high school’s senior class can be challenging. Advanced placement physics is offered online, and sports are merged with another district.
“As our upper-end classes begin to graduate, do we have enough children coming in in kindergarten?” Chakar asked. “So if I lose nine seniors and I only gain three kindergartners, that’s a net loss of six.”
The countless programs to pump up New York’s rural economies include small, targeted efforts like $62,000 in federal grants for rural breweries announced last fall by Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
Other initiatives are more ambitious, like Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $500 million rural-focused “broadband for all” plan announced in 2015. Though the administration missed its initial 2018 goal, officials said 98% of New York residents now have access to high-speed broadband and more access is in the pipeline.
So why do losses continue to pile up? People commonly blame upstate New York's long, snowy winters. Many conservatives blame the state's relatively high cost of doing business. There is some evidence to support both contentions.
But SUNY Oneonta sociology professor Alexander Thomas, who has studied New York's rural areas for two decades, offers several broader reasons.
Rural areas are typically not benefiting from immigration, he said, which has driven growth in New York City. And corporations continue to concentrate in larger cities, taking jobs with them. He adds there’s also a widespread perception that people need to leave rural areas to be truly successful.
“The kids who have the best educations from rural towns, they’re leaving rural towns,” Thomas said.
In Indian Lake in the Adirondacks, Wells noted that logging jobs dropped off decades ago, leaving locals to seek jobs in the public sector. His two adult sons have stayed in the area.
“I don’t think," he said, "my grandchildren will be here, though.”