Is N.H. a scrooge to young families?
At the post office the other morning, I took a hard look around me. I live in a town that supports New Hampshire's largest state university. Durham desperately needs young people for its strength, its vitality and its future. But on this winter's day during winter break at UNH, all I saw around me were gray-hairs. No strollers, only walking canes. No toddlers in tow, only old people waiting in line.Not that there is anything wrong with being old, mind you. It's just that a mountain of recent research has indicated that the future of this and any state depends on its ability to attract young families and young workers who will support our economy and take care of us aging baby boomers. Demographer Peter Francese, director of forecasts for the New England Economic Partnership, has been worrying about this trend for a long time. In 2008, he and Lorraine Merrill, New Hampshire's agriculture commissioner, published a book called "Communities and Consequences" that warned that the state's human ecology was becoming imbalanced. Five years later, their concern appears to be a reality."The 2010 Census tells us we have at least 22,000 fewer schoolchildren in New Hampshire than we did 10 years ago," said Francese in a recent conversation. "That's a 6 percent decline." Francese said that New England as whole has nearly 200,000 fewer school-age children than the region had 10 years ago.Francese says this lack of school children deeply threatens our state's future. The cost per pupil goes up, while schools have many fixed costs tied to staff, maintenance and compliance that don't change as student population falls. Taxpayers, who tend to look primarily at the cost per pupil, have regularly voted down much-needed school-improvement tax increases."We have created this problem by not focusing on how we can make New Hampshire attractive to young families," said Francese. "We're subsidizing old people like me at the expense of young families."Somehow, many vocal New Hampshire community activists seem to have gotten it into their heads that an increase in young families with school-age children equals an increase in property taxes. They couldn't be more wrong.The fact is, young families and children are vital to our state's economy. Young families spend more money, work more, earn greater profits for companies and contribute more to the federal and state economy than we gray-hairs do. Our schools should be filled to capacity and our communities should be allowing one unit of housing for young families for every unit allowed for elders.The economic impactIn 2009, the state Legislature passed a law requiring communities to provide opportunities for workforce housing. Any positive effects of this legislation on attracting young families to our state has yet to be seen. One very real economic impact on employers is that they have to fork out more and more for relocation benefits in areas where workforce housing is slim, like New Hampshire.More and more employers believe that the lack of suitable, affordable housing for young families is hurting our chances of full economic recovery.The current trend is not sustainable. Who do you think will drive that ambulance when your time comes? Who will repair our roads, fix your car, clean your teeth, replace your leaky heart valve, teach chemistry or Chinese to your grandchildren? Who do you think will launch the next great technical innovation that will make your old age easier?It probably won't be the aging boomers living in your town's 55+ housing development.Here at UNH I see brilliant graduates, who have invested their money, time, energy and passion into getting a good education, and will carry huge burdens of debt for that education well into the future, fleeing the state.As they leave here, they tell me they want to find a place that looks and feels younger. They want to live in communities that have adequate child care and great places for young families to find things to do. They want to find a cutting-edge job in an economically and socially vibrant area. But most of all, they want to live where other young families live.The Stay Work Play initiative (stayworkplay.org) is a good start, but without deep incentives for young people to move here (e.g., affordable workforce housing, great schools, and communities that welcome and recruit young people), the initiative will stall.So the next time our town gets together to decide about issues that affect young families - encouraging workforce housing and not just 55-plus communities, fully funding badly needed school repairs, building sidewalks and parks that young families can enjoy, and funding programs geared at young parents - I know what I'm going to do.I'm going to think about my chat with Peter Francese and cast my vote for balancing New Hampshire's human ecology.Dr. Malcolm Smith, family life and family policy specialist with UNH Cooperative Extension, teaches in the University of New Hampshire Family Studies Program. He can be reached at 603-862-7008, or firstname.lastname@example.org.