Myth Busting


The New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, one of the oldest and largest community foundations in the country, has been in need of full-length feature articles for its newsletter. I’ve provided copy and sidebar content on a variety of subjects for several recent issues.

Myth Busting

Facts and fiction about the population in the Granite State

On a blustery late-September day, beneath a white festival tent in an old New England mill town, young girls in colorful saris bend and twirl across a stage, performing the intricate steps of a traditional Indian dance, dark eyes flashing, gold bangles catching the light. Here in Newmarket, N.H., the site of the Piscataqua region’s annual Heritage Festival, granite mill buildings rise high along the Lamprey River, enduring proof of the town’s long, hard-working history—much of it written by immigrants.

Today, some of those in the audience under the tent are children and grandchildren of those early mill workers from French Canada and Poland. Many have lived in town all their lives. Others, like the dancers and their parents, are the town’s newest immigrants, hailing from India, Laos, and Japan—or from just across the border in Massachusetts. The tent is a jumble of generations, too—grandparents and toddlers, parents and teens sit shoulder-to-shoulder in the shadow of the mills where so many once labored so hard. This moment, a sort of instant portrait of one community, offers a vivid snapshot of the complex demographic issues and questions facing New Hampshire as a whole—and shatters some of the long-held assumptions about the identity of the Granite State.

Ken Johnson, senior demographer with the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute, has spent a good deal of time in recent years examining assumptions about New Hampshire’s population—and challenging them. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the ‘fact’ that New Hampshire is a very ‘old’ state,” says Johnson, who moved here several years ago from the Midwest. As it turns out, that assumption is something of a myth. It’s true that the state has a high median age—the fourth highest in the nation. But the reason for that, explains Johnson, is the state’s substantial middle-aged population, which sways the median age number—and which, in turn, is easily misinterpreted. The truth is that the actual proportion of people over 65 in New Hampshire is near the national average. In fact, 30 states have a greater percentage of seniors than New Hampshire does.

At the other end of the demographic spectrum, there’s been a good deal of concern about the state’s so-called “brain drain.” While it’s true that the state has fewer young adults than it did in 1990 (about 23 percent less), the reason for the lower number has nothing to do with “out migration,” according to Johnson. Rather, this figure reflects the decreased number of births in the state during the 1970s (which followed a national trend caused by baby boomers who delayed having children). This decreased birth rate then caused a decline in the number of young adults during subsequent decades. “There’s simply no evidence that New Hampshire suffers from any so-called brain drain,” says Johnson.

Perhaps the most persistent myth about New Hampshire is that it is an all-white state. In fact, the state does have one of the smallest minority populations in the country. But it’s also true that this is changing. Minorities have contributed a whopping 43 percent of the growth in the state’s population over the last nine years. And while only 7.2 percent of the state’s population is considered minority*, among children, that number jumps to 11.1 percent, an increase that reflects a national trend, according to Johnson.

In short, it turns out that New Hampshire is a small state with some significant myths about the nature of its demographic identity. Johnson’s analysis of the numbers has helped to shatter some of these myths—and provides a closer look at the facts that help to shape the state’s perception of itself.

Rather than being a gray state, for example, New Hampshire, at the moment, is a state in its prime. Only five states have a higher proportion of working-age adults, according to Johnson, who points out that for nearly 20 years, the Granite State has gained people in the middle age (30-49) group. “These are people raising children, working at jobs, contributing to their community—people who increase the state’s social capital,” says Johnson.

But New Hampshire’s middle-age population is growing like a giant wave—a “silver tsunami”—that will be bearing down on the state over the next 15 to 20 years.

What to do? Steve Norton, executive director of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, suggests that policy makers need to look ahead to consider a slew of questions this incoming demographic wave will bring with it, from tax burdens for schools to the demand for social services to property tax exemptions—and more. “We are shaped in the world of policy by how we perceive ourselves,” says Norton. “New Hampshire sees itself, for example, as a low-taxation state—our perceptions impact our policy. And if we perceive ourselves as a state with a balanced population base, then we will act to make that happen.”

As we consider the future, it’s worth keeping in mind that recent trends can offer promise, as well as challenge, Norton suggests. “There’s been some work, for example, that shows that people over 65 can be a force for economic good.” An accurate understanding of the demographic numbers—and their inherent complexities—can help promote useful dialogue about the issues and is critical to effective planning and policy-making.

In the end, the demographic numbers carry with them implications that go even beyond policy decisions, challenging as they may be, to a larger, more philosophical question: What sort of place do we want New Hampshire to be? Are we interested in balanced communities where multiple generations are actively engaged in various stages of life, all contributing to the state’s economic and social capital? Are we ready to embrace the challenge—and the promise—of communities filled with the color and texture of ethnic and cultural diversity? The trends are in motion: the identity of New Hampshire is evolving, bringing with it irrevocable change.