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Another View - Richard Ober: We have to act now to stop the decline in NH's future prospects

September 01. 2014 8:02PM

THIS STATISTIC grabbed recent headlines: New Hampshire is now the fourth-best state in the nation in which to raise children.

That data, from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Book, was reported as bad news. That’s because for the past decade, New Hampshire has consistently ranked first in this category. What happened? New Hampshire dropped to fourth for two reasons: Alarming rises in childhood poverty and in overall economic insecurity.

Trends like these catch many Granite Staters by surprise because we have had it pretty good for a long time. For much of the last three decades New Hampshire was among the fastest-growing states in the nation. The primary driver of this growth was in-migration, as hundreds of thousands of new residents moved here.

The rapid influx brought tremendous prosperity. We grew accustomed to top 10 rankings among the states in educational attainment, public safety, income, public health and raising kids. People talked confidently about the “New Hampshire Advantage,” although few agreed about what that meant. There was a bit of hubris in all of this; we were doing well, and it seemed the growth would never slow.

Until it did.

Since 2006, the state’s average annual population growth has plunged nearly 90 percent to fewer than 2,000 new residents per year. That’s down from an annual pace of 18,000 in the 1980s and 11,500 in the early 2000s. For the first time since 1970, more residents are leaving than arriving. Natural increase — births over deaths — has also slowed.

That is a stunning directional shift, and it raises a dilemma: For 35 years New Hampshire was very good at welcoming new residents and importing prosperity. But how good are we at building it here?

We’d better find out fast because the benefits of our past growth were not equally shared and we can no longer count on importing our success. We must make the right investments and policy decisions here and now. That demands that we confront some challenging truths, especially facing children and youth.

• New Hampshire is growing older. At 41, we have the third-highest median age in the country. Who will replace all these workers as they retire?

• Too many kids have too little. Sixteen thousand more children live in poverty today than did in 2008 — that’s a 63-percent increase, which is the highest rate of increase in the country. Why is that happening, and how have we let it?

• We rank second highest in underage drinking and in the top 10 for other drug use, yet 49th in providing treatment. What does that mean for the health of young people today and our economy tomorrow, given that excessive alcohol consumption alone costs $1.2 billion annually?

• We are last in funding for postsecondary education. Is it any wonder that New Hampshire students carry the second-highest debt load in the country and that too many go elsewhere for college?

Left unchecked, these trends could reduce our workforce by 10 percent in the next decade. Even now, employers report that they can’t find the skilled young workers they need.

I have talked with hundreds of employers, educators, policymakers and other concerned Granite Staters about these trends. Most arrive at the same conclusion: Our long-term prosperity demands focused attention on increasing opportunities and lowering obstacles for children and youth. Taking care of our own is not just a social obligation; it is an economic imperative. Businesses will start, locate and expand in states that invest in healthy communities and a future workforce.

All of that is easier said than done, but I am bullish on our chances.

In New Hampshire, we understand the power of public-private partnerships. The state is small enough that we can get people together to solve problems. And our politics is less polarized than in many places. We just need to put these assets to work.

With our many partners, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation is working to improve early childhood outcomes in the North Country, leading a 10-year strategy to reduce teen drinking and drug abuse, and creating more affordable and accessible pathways to help students thrive in today’s economy. We are proud of these efforts.

But we must do more, and that starts by asking questions. If fast growth was the defining theme of the last quarter century, what will it be for the next? How do we create a stronger safety net today while reducing the need for it tomorrow? Which investments in youth and children produce the greatest return in their quality of life and the state’s economic prosperity? What do young people think?

These are the questions that need answers. I am confident that, in the finest New Hampshire tradition, we can work in partnership across business, government and nonprofit sectors to answer those questions and map out solutions — with all the urgency and the momentum that the work demands.

We owe it to our kids.

Richard Ober is president and CEO of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

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