In one respect, examining census numbers for meaning is sort of like looking at paintings in a museum. From a distance, a pattern is clear. The closer you get to the picture, however, the more your initial impression is transformed into a jumble of ingredients in a different language: colors, brushstrokes and feelings. This interplay in proximity constitutes a large part of the viewing experience.
According to last year’s decennial census, Ulster County’s population decreased from 182,493 on April 1, 2010 to 181,851 on April 1, 2020 — a loss of 642 souls. At the municipal level, Esopus gained the most during the decade, adding 507 people. With a population reduction of 769 people, Shawangunk lost the most.
Expanding populations during the decade were reported in New Paltz (404 people), Woodstock (403), the Town of Ulster (333), Lloyd (270), and the City of Kingston (196). Among other towns on the significant minus side were Saugerties (-444), Wawarsing (-386), Rosendale (-293), Shandaken (-219), and Olive (-193).
What can one know of the viewing experience?
As things turned out, the U.S. Census Bureau couldn’t have picked a more awkward date than April 1, 2020 for the national population count. The pandemic had just caused many people, particularly the well-off, to abandon their urban residences in favor of more secluded suburban and exurban locales. Others, particularly the well-educated, had fled their office locations to do their work at their second homes in Ulster County, and the more mobile had already made seasonal residential arrangements via Airbnb.
All in all, it was an unspectacular decade in terms of population change. The southern part of Ulster County closest to New York City didn’t grow faster in population as it had in previous decades. The sparsely populated mountain towns in the northwestern part of the county lost population. The immediate Kingston area fared slightly better than the county average.
Even before the special circumstances of 2020, it hadn’t been easy to find eager census-takers. This time around it was even more difficult. Reported variations in population and other demographics often had more to do with the diligence and skills of individual census-takers than with the actual social changes it was their job to measure.
You’ve already heard that the 2020 census has confirmed that more of the United States population has moved to the Sunbelt in the past decade. You’ve now become aware that the United States population has grown increasingly more urban. There’s persuasive evidence that population growth in the big cities in the latter half of the decade slackened as the attractiveness of the biggest cities was eroded by high rents, overcrowding of various kinds, and-excessive land-use regulation. What population growth continued in these cities was provided by the continued influx of immigrants.
And then came the pandemic, especially accelerating the population outflow from the largest labor markets. And of course no local labor market is larger than the New York metropolitan area’s. New York City accounted for about three-quarters of the spectacular population growth of that consolidated metropolitan area. The inner suburbs — Long Island and Westchester and Rockland counties — accounted for much of the remainder. The parts of New Jersey and Connecticut closest to New York City added population.
The exurban perimeter, including Ulster and Dutchess counties, showed little or no population growth, and the great majority of New York’s upstate counties lost population in the decade.
What impact will the increasing popularity of hybrid work, given a big boost during the pandemic, have on Mid-Hudson Valley population patterns? Indications are that it might be substantial, but we’ll have to wait for the 2030 census to find out. There’s little evidence of it in the 2020 census.