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State's Getting Older And Not Planning For It

Rick Green

September 25, 2009

We're going to be one giant old folks home, the U.S. Census Bureau warns.

The joke is that the only one moving back to Connecticut is your mother-in-law. Except that's no joke: White non-Hispanic women over 85 actually are the one demographic group returning to Connecticut.

I went to Vernon where the busy senior center now offers tai chi and Nordic walking to try to get a handle on this. On the way, I'm pretty sure I passed some of the young, educated people and the newly retired folks with money the census folks say are beating a path out.

Vernon is among the unlucky towns on the front lines of a looming crisis, one that will eventually swallow our comfortable Connecticut lifestyle. In a decade, Vernon will have more "dependent" residents, that is the elderly and children, than working residents.

"We don't have enough children to replace the population. Who is going to support all these retirees? Who is going to buy my house?" Orlando Rodriguez, manager of the data center at the University of Connecticut, told me. "It is very scary stuff."

Our cities, with growing populations of minority residents, will not face a shortage of young workers. But out in the suburbs and small towns, it's a different story. By 2020, Rodriguez estimates, for every 100 working stiffs in Vernon, there will be 112 who aren't. By 2030, for every 100 workers, there will be 158, mostly elderly, non-workers in this town, and half the state will be facing the same situation.

This, demographers say, is very troubling.

Unfortunately, it's a concept our political leaders Democrat and Republican seem unable to fully grasp. Instead, they create more commissions, raise taxes on the rich, and ignore long-term investment and reform while blaming each other for the mess. This is good political theater, but it will not solve the problem.

"My biggest concern is not the individual homeowners, it's the ability to attract and maintain commercial businesses," said Vernon Mayor Scott McCoy, a young lawyer. "We have a lot of housing that is built and suited for people to walk to work. But we don't have the mills anymore."

Vernon, like the rest of the state, hasn't had the mills for decades. But it's got a hospital, a 50-person police force, public works department, a school district with 900 employees and loads of elderly residents on fixed incomes with tax exemptions and a town that provides trash and leaf pickup.

We need young people. We need families where the parents work. We need homes and towns they can afford to live in.

To attract them, it will mean spending money to create jobs for the future. In my view, this means investing in projects such as a new UConn research hospital and supporting biomedical industries and our nascent film studios.

To survive, we are also going to have to jettison lots of government that's not just state spending, but duplicative local government.

Our probate courts are a good example. We couldn't afford 117 of them, so we're shutting more than 60. The day is coming when we just won't have enough working folks to pay for all these separate school districts, planning and zoning commissions, public works and police departments.

"The state has increased its population by a pathetic 2.6 percent since 2000, less than half the rate of the nation, which is 7.8 percent," said Peter Francese, founder of American Demographics magazine. "Young people, families with children, are the keys to its future."

"You have more people who own homes in Connecticut who are completely out of childbearing age and have no kids in the schools," said Francese, director of demographic forecasting for the New England Economic Partnership. "When that number starts ballooning and it is ballooning you will see support for public education start to evaporate. People will vote against school budgets."

Demographers such as Francese and Rodriguez say we are on the verge of a tipping point.

It's more like an air raid siren.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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