Outrages & Insights
Despite all the renaissance talk, the numbers tell a different story
Erie and Niagara Counties lost almost 7,000 residents between 2010 and 2019.
Jim Heaney is editor of Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative reporting center based in Buffalo.
Population is a pretty good indicator of how well a community is doing. People move to places where there is opportunity. They flee places that lack it.
An analysis of census data recently released by the Empire Center for Public Policy documents how well the Buffalo metropolitan area is doing. Or, in this case, how well it’s not doing. Another study, this one from the Wehle School of Business at Canisius College, helps explain some of the reasons why. (It’s the economy, stupid!)
Over the past decade, forty-four of the sixty-three cities, towns, and villages in Erie and Niagara counties lost population. The losers ranged from the biggies—including Buffalo, which lost one-point-nine percent of its population, and Niagara Falls, down four-point-one percent—to the smaller burgs, like Alden, down more than eight percent, and Barker and Lewiston (yes, quaint, chic Lewiston) both down almost five percent.
Niagara County was especially hard hit, with seventeen of nineteen cities, towns, and villages losing population. The regional winners, if you want to call them that, were led by Clarence, up six-point-four percent, and Pendleton, which grew by just over six percent.
Add it all up, and the two counties lost 6,769 residents, a decline of one half of one percent. This during a time when the population grew five-point-seven percent nationwide.
This dynamic is by no means new. But it’s noteworthy, given all the self-serving rhetoric that’s been spewed by politicians in recent years. To hear Governor Andrew Cuomo and most other pols tell it, Western New York is experiencing a renaissance. Fleeing population does not equate with a renaissance. Nor is our population loss unique in upstate.
“The upstate rural areas are declining in population; the small cities and villages are also declining. The larger upstate cities are declining the least or increasing slightly, which is presumably due to the foreign immigration, which is refugee resettlement,” says E. J. McMahon, director of research at the Empire Center.
What’s the problem? “A lack of economic opportunity,” according to McMahon, who adds, “There are some good jobs being created, but [many of] those jobs go begging. People are leaving seeking better opportunities elsewhere.”
Indeed, the latest quarterly report issued by the Canisius’s Wehle School of Business documents the core problem with the local economy: “Both employment and wage growth still lagged behind the rest of the nation.” Job growth in the region over the past decade is less than half the national average, averaging barely half a percent vs. more than one percent. Wage growth also lags, although not as badly. Still, it means the wage gap is growing.
“The gap between the level of average weekly earnings between Buffalo ($896) and the US ($1,055) is considerable and growing,” according to the Canisius report, authored by economics professors George Palumbo and Mark Zaporowski.
While headlines suggest the local economy has picked up steam the past few years, McMahon said that’s not the case, noting, “There’s no evidence of any real change. Much of what is going on in Buffalo results in pockets of Buffalo looking better.” But what boosts morale doesn’t necessarily create jobs. “The feeling is better, but you don’t see a job count from that,” McMahon concludes.
The governor would have us believe that his Buffalo Billion will make everything alright, if it hasn’t already. But again, the numbers put the lie to that claim. The Buffalo Billion includes four job-creation initiatives: the Tesla plant in South Buffalo, AMRI on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, IBM downtown, and a program at UB to grow biotech companies. Together they’re supposed to create some 2,500 jobs and generate all sorts of spinoff development and, with it, additional employment. Thus far, job creation lags on several of the projects and there are growing doubts regarding Tesla’s ability to reach its target. For that matter, there are growing doubts about Tesla’s ability to survive, period.
But let’s say all 2,500 jobs eventually materialize. The Buffalo-area labor market consists of some 565,000 jobs. Adding another 2,500 jobs would increase the ranks of the employed by less than one-half of one percent. A game changer? Hardly.
As for jobs created by spinoff development, well, so far, there’s been none. It seems the state’s commitment ended with the ribbon cuttings involving the initial projects. To say Cuomo and company dropped the ball would be an understatement. Then again, anyone who has been paying attention recognizes that it’s all about the spin, not the jobs.
Buffalo Billion aside, the type of jobs we’re adding in Western New York plays into the equation. Investigative Post reported two years ago that more than two-thirds of jobs added between 2010 and 2016 were in low-wage businesses. Job growth leaders included restaurants, bars, and retail stores.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re doing better as a region. But that’s not the same as doing well. And until that changes, people are going to continue to flee Western New York and all the hot air from politicians isn’t going to change that.