ALBANY (TNS) — In 1950, eight years before Gov. Kathy Hochul was born, Buffalo was America’s 15th largest city. Nearly 600,000 people lived there.
But by then, Hochul’s hometown had already begun a decline that accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s, when the population of Buffalo and even some of its suburbs plummeted. Though its population edged upward in the last census, Buffalo is now the country’s 76th biggest city, its population more than halved from its peak.
It would be impossible to be from Buffalo and not understand something about the consequences of population loss — the eerie quiet of decaying neighborhoods, the pain of grandparents divided from grandchildren by distance, the sadness of seeing friends and neighbors move away. Any politician from the city would know that population drops are a sign something is wrong.
Perhaps that’s why Hochul said this during her State of the State on Wednesday:
“As we embark on this new era for our state, we need to take a hard look in the mirror and deal with a harsh reality. Nearly 300,000 New Yorkers left our state last year. That is the steepest population drop of any state in the nation.”
Hochul, a Democrat, was referring to a newly released census estimate reporting that the state’s population fell 319,020 in the 12 months before last July 1, a 1.6% fall believed to be the biggest single-year decrease in the state’s history.
It’s a startling decline that should alarm the state’s political leaders. And yet it was surprising to hear Hochul mention it.
Population drops, after all, have long been the norm in much of Upstate New York, as the statistics from Western New York make clear. But it is rare for anyone with power to acknowledge the problem.
The previous occupant of Hochul’s office — you may remember him — only talked about population declines when pressed by reporters, and then he pointed blame at the weather or the supposed desire to go fishing in January. (For what it’s worth, ice fishing can be a blast.)
Well, you can understand why politicians would prefer to ignore population outflows. While population trends are certainly tied to national and even global factors, the departure of large numbers of people signifies failure. It often shows that a place has become too expensive, too dangerous, too stagnant. It suggests politicians are doing something wrong.
Hochul, in office for just four months, has an advantage in that regard. The population drop reported by the census happened on the prior guy’s watch, not hers.
But I also suspect that Hochul’s Upstate roots, a rarity among statewide elected officials, has something to do with her willingness to acknowledge the problem.
When you’re from Queens or Westchester County, you have no reason to doubt that neighbors who flee to Florida, South Carolina or even New Jersey will be replaced by dreamers from distant countries or, say, Iowa. When you’re from Buffalo or Binghamton or Utica, you know a different reality.
You know the departures come with terrible costs and real heartache. You know population loss shouldn’t be ignored.
And Hochul, to her credit, didn’t ignore it.
“To those who temporarily left during the pandemic,” she said, “or are trying to decide their next steps during these uncertain times, I have one message: You do not want to miss what is about to happen next. Right now, in real time, we are building a New York worthy of your talents and ambitions.”
Let’s hope that’s so. But will Hochul really do anything to stem the outflow?
Without saying high taxes are a driver of the trend, the governor did highlight plans for $100 million in tax relief for small businesses, $1.2 billion in tax cuts for the middle class and a $1 billion property tax rebate. Hochul also said New York would become most “business-friendly and worker-friendly state in the union.”
New York has a looooong way to travel before anyone considers it business friendly. And we’ll see what Hochul’s progressive, spend-happy friends in the Legislature have to say about tax cuts or efforts to help those greedy capitalists who own businesses.
Hochul also touted a plan to make tuition assistance available to part-time college students, but I’d urge her to take an additional step and simply eliminate tuition for in-state families. Yes, doing so will cost something, but it would also give families worried about college costs a reason to stick around. Eliminating tuition would give New York a competitive advantage over other states.
It would also acknowledge, as the economist Edward Glaeser noted, that part of the reason Buffalo stagnated while cities such as Boston and Minneapolis flourished is that relatively few of its residents went to college.
“The cities that bounced back did so thanks to smart entrepreneurs, who figured out new ways for their cities to thrive,” Glaeser wrote for the magazine City Journal. “The share of the population possessing college degrees in the 1970s is the best predictor of which northeastern and midwestern cities have done well since then.”
Buffalo remains a great city, and Upstate can be a wonderful place to live. But the region was largely abandoned by state and federal politicians overly focused on New York City and other coastal cities. If they were thriving, everything was OK.
The new governor from Buffalo knows differently. That’s a start, at least.