Census data paints a picture of 2 New Hampshires

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The U.S. Census data released last week will allow states to begin the redistricting process.

Redistricting is important to watch, but the collected information also is useful to see where a state is and where it is headed.

For example, New Hampshire has three counties that lost population in the last decade, Coos, Sullivan and Cheshire.

Coos was the only county a decade ago to lose population and lost the greatest percentage of its population this time at 5.4 percent, while Sullivan lost 1.8 percent and Cheshire .9 percent.

The three counties have the lowest per capita income in the state and the highest percentage of people in poverty. Simply, they are the three poorest counties in the state.

The fastest-growing counties are in the eastern portion of the state, Belknap, Strafford and Rockingham.

Rockingham has the highest per capita income at more than $90,000, double that of Coos, in U.S. Census county-level surveys from 2014 to 2018.

If you live in Rockingham County you would need a higher income than in other areas of the state because the median home price topped $500,000 this spring in the hot real estate market.

The largest county in New Hampshire is Hillsborough, as it was a decade ago, and like much of the rest of the country, its urban areas are growing at a faster pace than its rural areas. although Rochester, in Strafford County, was the state’s fastest-growing city over the last 10 years.

And the Census data also shows that New Hampshire is becoming a more diverse state — not greatly diverse by any measure — but it is now less than 90 percent white, which is a change from the last census.

Those figures show what is happening in New Hampshire reflects the national trends as well, including lower birth rates and slowing growth.

The data is wonderful, but only useful if it allows you to see a bigger picture with the trends showing what is happening.

Overall New Hampshire has a relatively high per capita income level, and low poverty rate, but that is relative.

The average home in Rockingham County may have breached the half a million-dollar mark, but the cheapest houses selling in the San Francisco area fetch $1 million.

The pandemic has pushed housing prices up and by most accounts somewhat increased the state’s population through in-migration as many second-home owners decided to move their families out of urban areas and relocate to rural areas.

Enough to significantly bump up the state’s population? Probably not, but it does tend to make homes less affordable.

And there are pockets of tremendous poverty in all areas of the state from urban Manchester and Nashua to tiny hamlets in Coos County.

New Hampshire is also growing older and is one of the four oldest states in the country along with Vermont and Maine.

The problems that creates are readily apparent with all the help wanted signs not only in restaurants and hotels, but in retail stores, and for many service industry jobs including school bus drivers.

The current trends would suggest that New Hampshire may be growing more diverse, but it is also growing older and wealthier in order to afford to live here.

That makes it more difficult to attract the young workers the state’s economy needs long-term to grow.

The low numbers of young people is not a new problem, and attempts to address it have gone in fits and starts.

One issue that always is discussed but has been slow to translate into action is affordable housing.

This year the Senate included some significant one-time money — $25 million — to boost affordable housing, but projects take time to develop and often have to contend with the “not-in-my-backyard-although-I-am-a-big-supporter-of-affordable-housing” often heard in communities.

Another way to attract more young people to New Hampshire or to keep them here is to make higher education more affordable so student debt does not drive new graduates to urban areas in order to pay off what is often the equivalent of a mortgage.

State aid to higher education has yet to recover in real money from the cut it took in the 2011-2012 budget to adjust for the great recession.

Recent actions by the current legislature also would indicate lawmakers are more interested in attracting more older, wealthier people to the state.

For example, the current budget package would begin phasing out the interest and dividends tax, which is paid by a very small percentage of state residents.

You often hear it is an income tax on the elderly, but the threshold is high enough that the elderly who pay it have substantial investments.

The state is proud not to have a general income tax, but instead is dependent on business taxes, targeted sales taxes like the rooms and meals tax, and local property taxes to fund most of government: municipal, school, county and state.

Two years ago, lawmakers greatly increased state funding for education including about $80 million targeted to property-poor districts with skyrocketing property taxes.

The current legislature decided to cut back on the additional aid and instead used $100 million-plus of one-time money to offset the statewide education property tax.

The education property tax raises $363.1 million annually although it never leaves the community where it is assessed.

Although some property-wealthy communities raise more than they need to cover state adequacy aid, they retain the money so there are no “donor towns.”

So when lawmakers decided to essentially pay $100 million of the $363.1 million, some of the wealthy towns would lose money they normally would raise and keep, so lawmakers added $15 million to offset the loss.

The legislature also added significant money to help counties with nursing home costs.

One of the biggest expenses for counties, Gov. Chris Sununu proposed a significant reduction in state money for nursing homes in his budget plan, but that would have noticeably raised the county portion of local property taxes, and lawmakers instead increased state money going to nursing homes.

To backtrack a little, counties assess taxes based on the overall property wealth of all the communities in the county.

For example, in Sullivan County, the small town of Sunapee pays 27 percent of county expenses because of its property wealth from properties along Lake Sunapee, while Grantham pays another 10 percent due to its property wealth, mostly the Eastman Development.

Two of the smallest towns in Sullivan County pay about 40 percent of the expenses.

So when the state increases its support for nursing homes, the biggest benefit flows to the property wealthiest towns which have the lowest tax rates.

That is not to say additional money for nursing homes is problematic because it is not, but under the state’s property tax system, property wealthier communities receive the biggest benefit when there are what are essentially across-the-board increases in state money.

What does all this say about New Hampshire?

It says the current legislature has headed the state on a course to make the state more attractive to older, wealthier people and larger more successful businesses with the business tax cuts in the current budget.

That is fine if that is what you want, but it is counter to census data that says the state is growing more diverse, more urbanized, and leaving the state’s poorest counties behind.

That contradiction will sooner or later have to be part of the state’s political discourse. What do you want from your state government?

This is not new, there have been two New Hampshires for a long time, they are just becoming more pronounced.


Garry Rayno may be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com.