Opportunity knocks

If Ulster County is attracting more New York City people than ever to settle here, as many have said, how come the census folks tell us that our population is decreasing? The answer is simple. The number of people moving away from our economically challenged little paradise is greater than the number migrating into it. The fact deaths have outnumbered births in Ulster County in the past decade hasn’t helped, either. 

The Census Bureau estimates that Ulster County’s population decreased from 182,409 in 2010 to 178,599 in July 2018, a drop of 3810, or about two percent.

In October, Newburgh-based Pattern for Progress published a study saying the Hudson Valley’s regional economy was “out of alignment with its demographics.” Population growth was flat at best, wrote Pattern CEO Jonathan Drapkin. “Many high-paying jobs that existed before the Great Recession have been replaced by low-wage alternatives that make it difficult to raise a family here. This gives young people a cause to leave the area.” 


The “Out of Alignment” report provides supporting data.

In praising an increase in state-measured Ulster County private-sector employment from 49,100 jobs in September 2018 to 50,800 in the same month this year, county executive Pat Ryan recently spoke of his measures to encourage economic growth “to align our county with our natural economic and social strengths and to make the necessary investments to be successful in these key areas.”

“Alignment” is all the fashion these days. 

Of the 1700 additional private jobs created in the past year, 1200 were in the low-wage leisure and hospitality industry. Some 500 were in the relatively higher-wage construction, professional-services and finance sectors. Though those numbers in a non-farm labor force of 65,000 were nothing to sneeze at, they were little cause for euphoria. The cautionary sentence in Ryan’s press release that “we still have a lot of work to do” was lost in a cacophony of positive thinking.  

“These numbers are proof that Ulster County’s economy is firing on all cylinders,” Lisa Berger, the county’s new economic development head, was quoted as saying, for instance. “It’s the first time since 1998 that we have seen this kind of robust private job creation in Ulster County. These numbers mean that our local businesses are expanding, and new opportunities are being created. Excitement and interest in doing business in Ulster County is high. It’s a great time to grow, expand or invest in business in Ulster County.”

There’s a lot of in-migration going on these days, much of it from the New York City metropolitan area. For the most part, the people moving in have skills and work connections both personal and professional. According to census data, Ulster County has one of the highest ratios of work-from-home employment in the nation.

There’s even more out-migration than in-migration, though. Much of the out-migration consists of young people brought up in Ulster County finding limited career opportunities in the Hudson Valley and moving elsewhere, some to New York City and some to other parts of the country.

One of Ryan’s Big Five stated goals has been a commitment “to growing and diversifying our economy for all.” Addressing the alignment issue is one of the tasks of his twelve-member Ulster 2040 task force, scheduled to hold its second meeting at noon in the county office building in Kingston this Thursday, November 14. 

Hopefully, Ulster 2040 can figure out both how to attract skilled and entrepreneurially minded in-migrants while also creating greater local economic opportunity to keep potential out-migrants from leaving.

In the knowledge economy, simultaneous improvement on both fronts is not an either-or proposition. It’s only a little harder than walking and chewing gum at the same time. For an attractive exurban area like Ulster County, attracting valuable human capital from major metropolitan agglomerations has to be a priority. It’s neither more nor less crucial than creating jobs that provide our kids decent careers and a living wage. Fortunately, the two can work together. 

Many people I talk to seem to have no knowledge that the majority of Ulster County residents now work outside the county. In 2002 54.2 percent of the 71,433 jobholders who lived in Ulster County worked their primary jobs in the county. In 2007, 48.4 percent of the 34,789 jobholders were employed in the county. The percentages were 43.2 percent in 2012 and 43.8 percent in 2017. 

Close to one in five workers residing in Ulster County work in either Dutchess County or Orange County, a proportion that hasn’t changed much in the past two decades. In fact, the combined number of Ulster jobholders in its contiguous counties (Columbia, Delaware, Dutchess, Greene, Orange and Sullivan) has increased in the past decade by only 212 workers. The count of Ulster residents working in New York City suburbia (Nassau, Putnam, Rockland, Suffolk and Westchester counties) has remained the same in the same decade, too. 

But almost a thousand more Ulster County residents got their primary paychecks in New York City in 2017 than did in 2007 (7284 as compared to 6287). And the number of jobholders with more distant work has markedly increased. The knowledge economy seems to tolerate a greater distance between where someone lives and where they get their paycheck.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, explained an influential Brookings Institution study a year ago, market forces reduced geographic economic disparities. “More recently, the spread of digital technology increasingly rewarded the most talent-laden clusters of skills and firms,” wrote Clara Hendrickson, Mark Muro and William Galston. An upper tier of big, dense metropolitan areas grew faster than other places and changed the opportunity landscape. The costs of spatial divergence, the authors say, are too great to ignore.

More immediately, how can exurban communities like the upper Hudson Valley, located next to the very largest of American metropolitan areas, benefit from this divergence of opportunity?

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