New Hampshire is catastrophically old—and that will hurt the elderly the most

New Hampshire has sleepwalked into a population crisis. The state’s demographic balance has been poisoned by decades of anti-child and anti-family policies—often explicitly designed to drive young families out of Granite State communities. As a result, New Hampshire has become catastrophically old. 

In New Hampshire politics, discussing the state’s demographic doom is sometimes seen as an attack on the elderly. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, it is the elderly who will be hurt the most as our state slips off the precipice of demographic collapse—and it is for their sake, most of all, that we must confront this problem.  

Let’s start with the facts about our population woes. New Hampshire is one of only three states in the country where 100% of all counties now experience more deaths than births—and this implosion is accelerating. As documented in an alarming new book by demographer Peter Francese and coauthor Lorraine Merrill, New Hampshire is now older, and aging faster, than any state in America except Maine.

Of all 50 states, New Hampshire has the single highest rate of students who leave the state when they begin college—and most flee the state permanently. Thanks to this exodus of young adult Granite Staters, New Hampshire has also seen the largest 10-year decrease in children of any state in the US. As Stratham Selectman Joe Lovejoy told Francese, “We’ve been headed in the direction of making ourselves extinct.”

Other ultra-elderly states have realized that having an entire state composed of old people may not be a good idea. Vermont has started paying young professionals $10,000 to move to Vermont as part of a “remote worker grant program,” desperate to lower its median age of 42.8—the third-highest in the country. New Hampshire’s median age is 43.

New Hampshire has done little to compete with slightly-younger Vermont. According to a study by Stay Work Play, one in three 20-40 year-olds still in New Hampshire say they are likely to leave the state—and only 19% feel committed to remaining. Key problems cited by young Granite Staters include a lack of affordable housing and a social and cultural vacuum: a problem Stay Work Play calls “the loneliness factor” of New Hampshire.

Sadly, this demographic collapse is no accident. It is the bitter fruit of decades of purposefully anti-family, anti-child policies like age-restricted housing and a lopsided tax system. In his other research, Peter Francese has presented overwhelming evidence that these policies are part of an effort to make New Hampshire communities as inhospitable as possible to young families. This effort is of great concern to us at Cornerstone, where we have long promised to fight for a New Hampshire “where families thrive.”

In a revealing 2008 documentary, then-Deerfield Selectman Andy Robertson recalled many residents telling the town government to keep children out of Deerfield because “We’ve already raised our children: we did that in Massachusetts.” More recently, Pelham planning director Jeff Gowan has explained that Pelham first began to favor age-restricted housing because advocates argued that doing so would keep children out of the town. There are numerous similar stories throughout New Hampshire. Today, says Francese, the result is that “the only truly affordable housing in the state is if you’re 55 or older and have no children.”

Anti-family policies have been driven by a belief that treating children like an infestation of vermin will lower tax bills. Robertson described how Deerfield retirees, often from Massachusetts or Connecticut, would “‘keep repeating their mantra’ that any development might bring children and raise tax bills.”

In fact, excluding young families neither boosts local revenue nor effectively reduces school taxes. In the case of Pelham, for example, Francese explains that costs incurred by residents of age-restricted housing—such as costs to medical services—actually exceeded the property taxes on age-restricted housing units, which had been diminished by elderly tax abatements. Meanwhile, while school enrollments declined, school taxes did not. Seeing its mistake, in 2019 Pelham became the first town in New Hampshire to adopt a warrant article prohibiting any new age-restricted housing.

But the greatest irony of anti-family policies is that, if they are not reversed, they will ultimately hurt those they were ostensibly meant to help: the elderly. That’s because a state with a low and diminishing number of people under retirement age will—sooner than many of us expect—become a state without a functioning workforce.

Of course, this trend also hurts young workers by depriving them of the beauty and liberty that New Hampshire has to offer. Yet, for the most part, it is not these workers who will die needlessly in hospitals that are short on perioperative staff. It is not young families who will be trapped in burning homes because local fire departments lack volunteers. And it is not small children who will die of untreated heart attacks and strokes as ambulances drive from forty-five minutes away.

This is no exaggeration or speculation. Consider that, in less than 10 years, most people in Carroll County, New Hampshire will be over the age of 65. Currently, only a single county in all of America has an over-65 majority: Sumter County, west of Orlando, Florida. And it does not paint an attractive picture of New Hampshire’s near future. 

Although Sumter County is at first glance economically well off—with ambulances provided by a for-profit company—residents who call 911 face staggering delays caused by crippling understaffing. An elderly person who experiences cardiac arrest can expect to wait up to an hour and 20 minutes for an ambulance to arrive.

Alarmed by the aging of Carroll County, the Mt. Washington Valley Housing Coalition has asked: “With the lack of available housing, who is going to move here and fill those jobs?” The answer is simple: without purposeful changes, New Hampshire’s jobs will not be filled. 

Job openings, by themselves, will not cause a young workforce to sprout out of the ground or drop from trees. Nor will New Hampshire’s demographic crunch resolve itself. This is not some economic cycle which the free market, by itself, will naturally fix. It is a misconceived but deliberate manipulation of our human ecology by state and local governments.

The elderly, like all Granite Staters, benefit in many ways from living in a mixed-generation community. But if New Hampshire does not change course in a consciously pro-family direction, it is the elderly who will ultimately suffer the most.  

Ian Huyett is the General Counsel and Director of Policy at Cornerstone.

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