Myth: The Adirondack Park population is substantially older than the average for New York State and for other regions in the United States. That we are older is the result of a poor economy which, in turn, results from excessive public ownership of land and a restrictive regulatory environment. We are old and poor, and it’s the Park’s fault.

Reality: The age of the Adirondack population in comparison to the rest of New York and to other regions is largely owing to the fact that Adirondack residents are disproportionately white and that the white population of New York and of the U.S. is substantially older than the non-white population. In fact the average age of the Adirondack population is close to that of the non-Hispanic white population of New York and is actually younger than the average of the non-Hispanic white population of several U.S. states.

According to the widely publicized Adirondack Park Regional Assessment Project (APRAP) report, the average age of people in the Adirondack Park is “just under 43 years of age.” This is almost 6 years older than the average age of New York State (37.4) and higher than the average age of any state.

Many interpreters of the APRAP report claim that this alleged demographic calamity is the result of a poor economy and that it shows the negative impact of environmental regulation, the Forest Preserve, and regional land use planning. Fred Monroe, a director of The Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages and one of the leading spokespersons for and interpreters of the APRAP report, wrote that residents of the “Adirondacks are older and poorer than their fellow residents in New York State.” NCPR’s Brian Mann wrote “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.”

Yes, “just under 43 years of age” is indeed older than the average age of New York and of the population of any state. In 2006, the year of Census data (American Community Survey) APRAP employed in its analysis, Maine had the highest median age of any state at 41 with Vermont and West Virginia not far behind at 40.6 and 40.7. But the comparison of the median age of Adirondack residents to state median ages is misleading. The population of the Adirondack Park is overwhelmingly white. And the median age of white populations in New York and across the U.S. is significantly higher than for non-white populations. Non-Hispanic white populations are aging largely because they have low birth rates (something usually associated with prosperity, not poverty) and because immigrants to the U.S. are largely Hispanic.

The average age of non-Hispanic whites in New York in 2006 was over 41, and it was over 40 for the country as a whole. The population of the Adirondack Park tracks the white population of New York, and, indeed, as we show below, is younger than the white population of many other parts of the U.S. Thus, what the average age of the populations of the Park tells us is not that we are old and poor. It is that we are a largely white population with demographics that are similar to those of the New York and U.S. white populations.

Let’s look in more detail at how looking at race changes the Adirondack demographic picture.

Who are Adirondack residents? Let’s look at the racial demographics of the two Adirondack counties entirely within the Blue Line and allow them to represent the Adirondack population. As the table below shows, a central fact about us is that we are a disproportionately white population – much whiter than other Americans or other New Yorkers.

What difference does this make for average age? In 2006, the average age for New York’s African American population was 33, Asians 35.3, and Hispanics 30.3, the largest U.S. minority group. In contrast, New York’s non-Hispanic white population had a median age of 41.3. Thus the non-Hispanic white population of New York is rather close to the “just under 43” that APRAP viewed with such alarm. It is the high percentage of younger minorities in the U.S. and New York population that accounts for the disparity in median age, not the Park.

A second factor to attend to is that it is the immigration of younger minorities, especially Hispanics that maintains New York’s population. New York’s population increased 2.1% from the 2000 Census to the 2010 Census. But its white population declined by 4% while its Hispanic population increased by 19%. Given this, it is especially noteworthy that Essex County’s overall population and its non-Hispanic white population both increased from 2000 to 2010 (by 1.3% and 1% respectively). Essex County is not racially diversifying its population in the same way as the rest of New York or the U.S.

Clearly, when we look at race to understand Adirondack demographics what we learn isn’t that we have a poor economy. What we learn is that we are and continue to be an overwhelmingly white population.

We get a similar picture if we compare ourselves to other areas of the U.S.

While the median age in 2006 of non-Hispanic white populations in U.S. was 40.6, a few years younger than the Park’s average age, there were several states with non-Hispanic white populations even older than the Park’s. The non-Hispanic white population in Florida was 45.1 years and in New Mexico it was 44.3. Both top the Adirondack Park median age in 2006 of somewhere between 42-43. Non-Hispanic whites in Connecticut had a median age of 42.3, Maine 41.7, Delaware 41.7, New Jersey 42.3, Pennsylvania 41.8, and Rhode Island 41.6. In the west and southwest, Arizona’s average age for non-Hispanic whites was 42.2, Montana 41.5, and Nevada 41.6. All these states are clearly in the same neighborhood as the Adirondacks. In fact, of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, 29 have a median age for their non-Hispanic white population of 40 or over.

Interestingly, California’s median age for non-Hispanic whites in 2006 was 42.4 years. Yes, the most populous state in the country, the state with perhaps the most dynamic economy in the U.S., is close to dead-on for the same population characteristic as the Adirondack Park.

APRAP researchers did not think to look at the differences of age by race. They did not consider other factors that are known to affect population such as remoteness, low population density, or scenic attractiveness. They did not look at birth rates, immigration or emigration. (After all if the Park’s median age increases because we attract or retain retirees that might be viewed as a sign of regional health.) Perhaps they did not wish to consider factors that might inhibit their quick leap to the conclusion that aging in the Park signifies a poor economy and that this poor economy is the fault of the Park.

Indeed they seem so sure of the fact that the Park has a negative effect on what they see as our economic and demographic decline that they provide no evidence for it.

If we are to understand what is happening in the Adirondacks and why, we need more careful and more searching analyses.