I’m an unabashed Connecticut booster, and I really do like living in this stupid, infuriating, hopelessly charming and wonderful state. But I get that it’s not to everyone’s taste, especially as we slowly change from what we were to whatever new thing we’ll be. That’s how we can get two seemingly opposing bits of news this month: first, that our total population dipped lower again last year, and second, that the Hartford area is one of the best places for millennials to move to.
Connecticut is nothing if not full of contradictions.
Let’s take the population news first. New census figures suggest that Connecticut’s population declined by about 1,200 people in 2017-18, continuing a decade-long trend of flat or falling numbers. Our population peaked in 2013 at around 3.59 million, but has fallen back to 3.57 million since.
Parts of Connecticut are doing better than others. Since 2010 a clear pattern of have and have-not counties has emerged. Fairfield County is actually gaining residents, despite hellish traffic and absurdly high house prices. Proximity to New York City and its booming economy have been and always will be Fairfield County’s strength. Every other county has lost population, led by New London County. Windham County has recently gained some population, but still remains below where it was in 2010. Hartford County has lost population every year since 2013.
Why is this happening?
Oh, man. That’s a question everyone has an opinion on. It’s taxes, it’s the economy, it’s the weather, it’s the cost of living, it’s the fact that we’re a bunch of gloomy complainers, and so on and so on.
Here’s what seems to be true: out-migration has taken a toll that domestic in-migration and foreign immigration hasn’t offset, as residents head both south and west to warmer climes and cheaper living. But it’s more than that. Our high-tax, cold, and expensive neighbor Massachusetts did pretty well, attracting over 38,000 new people.
So, okay, we’re losing out because we don’t have a big city with lots of jobs. But supposedly teeming New York City actually saw a massive population drop of over 40,000 people, according to the Census Bureau (New York disputes this, pointing to a change in how the survey was conducted).
Population and migration are complex. Hampden County in Massachusetts has actually grown steadily since 2010, while Hartford County, just to the south across the border, shrank. Taxes and cost of living aren’t that different. Employment opportunities are probably a bit worse. Tolls already exist. They’re far from the big city, with no good transit links. So what are they doing right that we’re doing wrong?
Maybe it’s something we can’t measure. Maybe it’s psychological. Maybe it’s the siren song of F.L. Roberts gas stations and Donut Dip. Maybe it’s that the Pioneer Valley has an identity and some self-esteem, and we don’t.
We’ll know a lot more after the 2020 census, which theoretically counts everyone. When that happens, though, if our population decline holds up, be prepared to lose a seat in Congress.
Unless there’s a sudden rush of people in their 20s and 30s buying houses in Connecticut, which may not be as far-fetched as we assume.
A new study pegged Hartford as 8th best in the nation for millennials, a ranking based on entry-level job opportunities and home prices, among other things. These rankings of cities that are good for young people in one way or another come out all the time, but Connecticut cities are starting to pop up on them more often these days. For instance, New Haven is apparently the top destination for millennials who are moving to another city.
And why not? New Haven has culture, opportunity for young professionals, and housing that’s not prohibitively expensive. Plus, New York City is just a Metro-North train ride away.
But if we’re so attractive to young people, why are we losing population? And if we’re so awful that people are heading for the hills, why are we so attractive to young people?
Very well, we contradict ourselves. Connecticut is changing, and the story we tell about ourselves now won’t be the story we tell in 10 years. In the meantime, it’s a good idea to let those young people know that this wonderful mixed-up place could be a great home for them.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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