hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Editorial May 2019



In a graying region, welcome willing hands


One of the wonders of our current period of political polarization is the apparent ease with which some people are managing to hold fast to their ideological viewpoints even in the face of lots of contradictory evidence. And nowhere is that phenomenon more evident that in our ugly national debate over immigration.

Last month, our president visited the Mexican border with a typically blunt message for would-be immigrants: “We can’t take you anymore. We can’t take you. Our country is full.”
Really? The news in our own eight-county region suggests that, far from being full, our rural communities are becoming emptier and grayer.

Consider the new U.S. Census Bureau estimates released in April, which showed the population stagnant or declining in all but one county in our region from 2010 to 2018. Saratoga County’s population increased by 4.8 percent, but most of our counties lost between 2 percent and 5 percent of their residents during the period.

The loss of young people – a warning sign for our economic future -- has been even more pronounced. A study released last month by the newly formed Rural Data Journalism Project examined public school enrollment figures and found an almost universal decline across upstate New York. In Warren and Washington counties, for example, the study showed the number of students in most districts declined by more than 20 percent over the past 25 years.

Declining enrollment also is behind the current push for school consolidation in Vermont. And partly because of this shrinking pool of young people, three colleges in our corner of Vermont are going out of business this spring.

Yet another set of data released last month came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It showed the decline in the number of the region’s farms – a long-term trend – is worsening. The year-to-year figures for upstate New York showed the largest drop in the number of farms in more than two decades, with the dairy sector – the traditional mainstay of our region – particularly hard hit.

The loss of dairy farms in New York and Vermont has over many years been partly offset by consolidation, with the surviving dairy operations being larger and more productive. But the demographic challenges of our region make it hard to sustain these labor-intensive operations. As a result, over the past two decades, most of the large dairy farms in the region have come to depend on foreign laborers. And though no one wants to be too specific in this era of ICE raids, it’s a safe bet that many of those workers are undocumented.

Which brings us to the topic of our cover story this month: a push to allow undocumented immigrants in New York and Massachusetts to obtain driver’s licenses. Proponents cite the problems faced by farm workers who can’t legally drive to grocery stores and health clinics. But many local elected officials are objecting to the idea of granting licenses to, as state Sen. Daphne Jordan put it, “illegal immigrants who broke the rules.”
Well, yes, it would be much better if all of the foreign workers keeping our economy afloat were here legally. But that would require a substantial increase in the number of people we allow into the country. And with the stalemate in Washington over the past two decades, that seems unlikely .

In our region, the decline of our native-born labor force is beginning to pose an existential threat to our economic future. It makes no sense to demonize and punish people who are willing to lend their hands to help sustain that future.

May 2019 editorial Cartoon


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