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Our population is shrinking; does it matter?

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By DEBORAH E. LANS

GHENT—It’s happening worldwide. From 1950 to 2021 the birth rate declined 81% in China, 63% in India and 52% in the United States, as reflected in United Nations (U.N.) data.

The trend is also evident in the Hudson Valley, where Columbia County is a leading example.

Between 1997 and 2019 (a much shorter period than the U.N. tracked), the county saw a 27.8% decline in births. Only Putnam County saw a greater decline. Greene County was close behind Columbia, with a 26.6% drop.

Why is this happening? According to the U.N., birth rates generally decline as socioeconomic development rises. Growing urbanization, higher living standards, rising costs, smaller living spaces, access to family planning, and a greater focus on career are all factors contributing to smaller families.

A recent study by Pattern for Progress (Pattern), “The Great People Shortage and Its Effects on the Hudson Valley,” has collected and analyzed the data. In the Hudson Valley, the steep decline in birth rates has combined with the steady out-migration of residents to create an overall drop in our population. Every year in the last 25, except for 2018/19, more people have left the area than have migrated in—a loss of 134,505 people across nine counties.

The study finds that the key drivers of out-migration are housing-related (nearly 50%), family-related, and job-related. In particular, the lack of affordable housing is a principal underlying cause of out-migration.

Columbia and Greene counties have slightly bucked that trend of late. From 2015 to 2021, Columbia saw a net gain in migration in four of six years, of more than 900 people. Greene County gained in net migration (totaling about 1,500) in all six years studied.

So, does the gain in net migration offset the decline in births? No, because when combined with deaths, Columbia and Greene counties are still losing population overall—every year of the last 20.

Moreover, the age of our population is shifting. In the last decade, according to Pattern, the percentage of the population under 19 has shrunk and the percentage over 60 has grown. That change—sometimes called a “silver tsunami”—is consistent with recently-released federal census data, which show that the median age of the country’s population increased in the past two-plus decades (2000-2022) from 30 to 38.9. But, Columbia County is even older, with a median age of 48.5 and more than 26.5 % of its population over 65. Greene County is not far behind.

What do all these numbers mean?
On the economic front, fewer younger people means that we will increasingly see labor shortages with resultant upward wage pressure. There will be fewer people to perform all the jobs that anchor society—doctors, nurses, teachers, laborers, electricians, even news reporters.
The May 2023 local labor force statistics released by the state Department of Labor underscore this trend: Columbia County’s unemployment rate is 2.4%—a statewide low for counties not within a major labor area; Greene County’s rate was 3.3%.
Columbia Memorial Health CEO Dorothy Urschel notes that, like most employers, it has been more challenging to hire for all types of healthcare positions, especially since the pandemic. The health of rural hospitals is also affected. In rural areas in the Northeast where there are significant populations of Medicare beneficiaries, reimbursements do not offset expenses, creating financial strains. 
And then there’s education.  Schools have been hit hard by the challenges of hiring and retaining teachers. Further, our schools have been experiencing declining enrollments for years. When Superintendent Sal D’Angelo first joined the Chatham Central School District in 2017, the district had 1,065 students. That number is now 888—a decline that is spread across the spectrum from pre-K to 12th grade.
Declining school enrollments can lead to school closures and does lead to diminished opportunities. A high school elective that only attracts a few students may be eliminated or scheduled for alternate years. “The depth and breadth of offerings is affected.”
Benjamin Bragg, Superintendent, and Ryan Smith, Business Administrator, of the Germantown Central School District explain that both the federal and state formulas for funding schools are largely driven by student enrollment figures. Fewer students mean fewer resources, unless the local community ups its contributions through higher taxes.
Moreover, it does not follow that because enrollment declines, the costs of running a school do as well. First, as Mr. Smith notes, costs are currently rising due to inflation. Second, as Chatham’s Superintendent D’Angelo notes, the fact that you lose students does not necessarily translate to lower costs; a 30-50 student loss spread across elementary through high school grades may mean that there are smaller class sizes but not to the point of eliminating a class, or teacher, he says.
On a societal level, population decline and aging hurt as well, reducing the number of volunteers for such vital services as fire departments, ambulance corps and town governments. 
For more information on ‘The Great People Shortage and Its Effects on the Hudson Valley’ by Pattern for Progress go to pattern-for-progress.org.

Median age by community in Columbia County

Source: CensusReporter.org

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