Foss: It’s not just the weather

Kory Yorks of Cobleskill clears snow after a winter storm dropped over three feet of snow on the region in March 2018.
Kory Yorks of Cobleskill clears snow after a winter storm dropped over three feet of snow on the region in March 2018.

Yes, people leave upstate New York because of the weather. 

Specifically, the raw, unpleasant chill that typically sets in in November and lifts in late March. 

If you’ve never looked out the window and daydreamed about booking a flight to a warmer climate during this dreary time, well, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am. 

Which is all a way of saying that Gov. Andrew Cuomo isn’t totally wrong to attribute upstate New York’s steady decline in population to weather, as he did earlier this week. 

But the weather is only part of the story, and the governor ought to know that. 

High cost of living and a lack of economic opportunity are also factors, with young adults, in particular, moving to cities and regions where good jobs abound. 

According to the 41st National Movers Study, released last January, New Yorkers give four main reasons for relocating to other states: retirement, health reasons, lifestyle changes and jobs. 

The data showed that New Yorkers were moving to Southern and Western states, where “housing costs are relatively lower, climates are more temperate and job growth has been at or above the national average, among other factors,” Michael Stoll, an economist and professor in the Department of Public Policy at UCLA, told The Post-Standard in Syracuse. 

Over the years I’ve heard from a number of people who have left upstate New York for other states, often, but not always, for Florida. 

They usually cite a number of reasons for moving — lower taxes, cheaper housing, family and, yes, the weather. 

What I’ve learned is that people seldom move for just one reason. 

They usually move for a combination of reasons, such as a better-paying job and a desire to live in a different part of the country. 

My friends Dan and Jenny moved to New Mexico because it was where they wanted to live, but also where Jenny found the job of her dreams. Without the job, they’d probably still be living here, in the Capital Region. If the job was located in, say, Green Bay, Wisconsin, Jenny might have turned it down. 

Refusing to acknowledge the myriad reasons why people leave upstate New York for other states is a major disservice. 

You can’t fix a problem if you aren’t honest about what’s causing it, and Cuomo’s remarks suggest he believes that the hard work of improving the quality of life upstate is mostly done. 

“People will make demographic choices about where they want to live,” Cuomo said earlier this week. “Some of them are climate-based. Some of them are based for personal reasons. So the diminishing population in upstate is not new. People were leaving upstate New York because they had to in the past. … Young people were leaving because parents were saying, ‘You better leave. There are no economic opportunities here.’ That is no longer the case.” 

“If somebody wants to move to Florida, because they want to move to Florida, God bless them,” the governor continued. “They want to fish; they want the warm weather. But we were chasing people from the state. We are now attracting people to this state.”

The reality is far more complicated than the governor lets on. 

About 1 million people have moved away from New York since 2010. Forty-two of the 50 upstate counties have lost population over the past decade.

In the Capital Region, Albany, Saratoga, Rensselaer and Schenectady counties all experienced growth between 2010 and 2017, with Saratoga County showing the biggest population gain – 4.7 percent – and Rensselaer County the smallest, 0.2 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Fulton, Montgomery and Schoharie counties all saw their population drop. 

Are all of these people leaving because of the weather? 

No, they are not. 

A couple weeks ago, I praised Cuomo for holding a listening tour to gain input from New Yorkers on the hot topic of marijuana legalization. I also suggested that the governor might benefit from hearing what New Yorkers might have to stay on other hot topics. 

After reading Cuomo’s remarks, I’ve come to the conclusion that upstate population loss might be a worthwhile topic for a listening tour.

An honest conversation about what ails upstate New York won’t necessarily solve any problems, but it’s a good first step to addressing them.

Certainly, the governor’s comments suggest he might benefit from hearing what upstate residents have to say about why they live here — and why they choose to leave. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.     

Categories: News, Opinion

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