Recent pieces posted by PROTECT Board member Phil Terrie and Executive Director Peter (here and here) in the Adirondack Almanack stressed the importance of placing the Adirondack Park experience and condition in a national context, especially with the rest of rural America. National context is important when trying to ascertain trends in Adirondack Park demographics, economics or land use.
Two weeks ago, The New York Times data-crunching blog The Upshot published an interactive map that ranked the 3,135 counties in the U.S. by how hard or easy these places are to live. The indicators they chose to create this ease or hardship ranking were median income, unemployment, percent of population with a college degree, disability rate, obesity and life expectancy. The Upshot said these metrics were selected due to the availability of county level data across the U.S., which provided a profile of economic and public health conditions. Disability was not used as a health indicator, but as a data point for the non-working adult population, which was used in conjunction with unemployment.
When the The Upshot mapped its rankings county by county, what stands out are the massive swaths of Appalachia and the Deep South as landscapes of low rankings in this survey; places mired in a hard conditions. Other smaller regions experiencing chronic tough times are the Texas border, northern Michigan, northern Maine, and the far northern counties of California and southern Oregon. Counties with high Native American populations out west also stand out in Montana (Big Horn county), Arizona (Navajo, Apache), New Mexico (Cibola) and South Dakota (Shannon).
On balance, the Adirondack Park counties are doing pretty well by these indicators. The two counties that are completely within the Blue Line, Hamilton and Essex, which are often used as surrogates for the whole Adirondack Park, were ranked at 853/3,135 and 1,014/3,135, solidly in the top third. This is pretty good for rural counties, since all the top ranked counties were metropolitan counties.
Clinton County ranked 1,323, Washington at 1,180, and Herkimer at 1,490. Saratoga (129) and Warren (628) counties had some of the highest rankings in Upstate New York, along with Tompkins County (178). Franklin (1,872), St. Lawrence (2,048), Fulton (1,992) and Lewis (1,888) counties scored in the lower half.
The suburban counties around New York City scored very high: Westchester (98), Rockland (96), Putnam (66), and Nassau (63). This is consistent with the Times ranking which saw all of the highest scoring counties as those in close proximity to major metropolitan areas. Note that Chittenden County in Vermont, which surrounds Burlington, was ranked 41st is the country and had the highest score in the northeast.
Other New York counties that ranked as being harder places to live are some of the most remote in the New York, including Oswego (2,052), Orleans (1,894), Montgomery (2,149), Chenango (1,782) and Cattaraugus (2,064). As a group the Southern Tier counties all ranked in the bottom half.
The other Northern Forest counties in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine all scored well below the top cluster of Adirondack counties. Orleans County in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont was in the top half of ranked counties, while Essex and Coos in New Hampshire and the five Maine counties (Oxford, Franklin, Somerset, Piscataquis and Aroostock) all scored solidly in the bottom half. The Northern Forest counties in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota were a mixed bag.
The most jarring thing about the Times map is the data for life expectancy rates. Here, all the Adirondack counties generally scored well, with ranges of 78-80 years. St. Lawrence had the lowest with 77.6 years, while Saratoga had the highest in the area with 80.6. This contrasts with many parts of Appalachia and the Deep South where life expectancy hovered in the low 70s and even dipped to 69 in places. There are places in the U.S. with economic and social conditions so challenging that they result in life expectancy rates 10 years less that what we have in the Adirondacks and Upstate New York. The highest ranked counties all topped 80 years, with the suburban counties around Washington, D.C. seeing life expectancy rates of 82-83 years.
In many parts of Appalachia and the Deep South the percent of the population with college degrees is around 10% and there are many counties that have single digits. Most of the Adirondack counties had college degree rates around 24%, with Saratoga County as high as 36%. Westchester County has 44% and Chittenden County in Vermont had 46%.
The combined unemployment and disability rates in most Adirondack counties ranged between 10-12%. In many of the counties that ranked as hard places to live in Appalachia and the Deep South, these combined rankings ranged from 15-20%.
The issue that has recently dominated public discussion in the Adirondacks around an aging population doesn’t seem to correlate to hard living. Cook County in Minnesota was ranked 204 by the Times, yet has a median age of 51, near to Hamilton County’s median age of 52. Litchfield County in northwest Connecticut was ranked 142nd, but has an average age similar to Essex County at 45 years old. Divide County in North Dakota has a median age of 52, yet was ranked 303. Jefferson County in Washington has one of the country’s highest median ages of 55, yet was ranked 727.
A comparison between the U.S. median age map and the Times hard living map shows that many of the lowest ranked counties in Appalachia and the Deep South have younger populations, far below the Adirondack average of 45 years. For instance, Toombs County in southeast Georgia has a median age of 36, which is below the national median age of 37, yet was ranked 2,811. Kemper County in Mississippi has a median age of 39, yet ranked 3,070. Many low scoring counties throughout the Deep South have median ages under 40 years old. As a region the cluster of counties in eastern Kentucky that form the heart of Appalachia, and received the lowest rankings in the Times report, all have median ages of 39-41 years old — a median age range that many leaders in the Adirondacks pine after.
It would be interesting the isolate the nearly 2,000 non-metro/rural counties in the U.S. and examine this set of indicators along with median age and establish a national rank. (A rank for metropolitan counties would also be useful.)
This would help to provide a national rural context to help assess the Adirondack condition and better inform leaders about the particular challenges facing the Park and help to formulate appropriate strategies.