Co. Trends: Population’s Aging, Decreasing

COURT HOUSE - Cape May County’s population is getting older. 

The median age of permanent residents tops 50-years-old. One half of the population of the county is over 50-years-old. That makes Cape May County the oldest county in the state. 

The state median age is over 10 years younger at 39.8. Sixteen of the state’s 21 counties have a median age at least eight years below Cape May County.

While the median age is 50.1, 37% of the county’s residents, more than one out of every three, are at or above 60-years-old.

In the almost decade since the 2010 census, the category of over 65-year-olds grew by 12% while those in the grouping of 35 to 54-year-olds declined by 19%. The second-biggest decline was in those under 20-years-old, down 10.7%.

It has been known for some time that the county’s population is shrinking, down 8.6% since its peak in 2000. What has not been as clear is that the decline of working-age adults has been occurring at an even greater clip, masked somewhat by the increase in older residents.

As preparations are made for the next census, a look back at the 2000 and 2010 results shows that the decade between those two reports was one in which the county lost 5,061 individuals, a loss of almost 5%.

The category of young people 17 and younger decreased by 4,510 in that period. Some of them aged out of the category without being replaced. They turned 18. Others left the county. 

The result was the same, a smaller contingent of the young in the county’s population, coupled with a growing number of residents 60 and older.

This data comes from the most recent American Community Survey and the New Jersey State Data Center.

Three Factors

The census data point to three factors influencing life in Cape May County.

The first is that the permanent resident population is aging. This has a myriad of impacts across county life from health care issues to declining school enrollments.

The second factor is that the population is shrinking overall. The latest census estimates place the county population at 93,553, down from its peak of 102,326 in 2000. 

Various projections exist for future trends in the county’s population. None see it increasing.

Two projections published in 2016 arrive at different conclusions.

The New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development (DLWD) produced projections of total population by county to 2034. That report has Cape May County’s population largely where it is today, showing a 2034 population of 93,400.

The South Jersey Transportation and Planning Organization (SJTPO) also published Year-Round Population and Household Projects by County and Municipality in the summer of 2016. Those projections show 83,200 in 2035 and a continued decline to 79,500 in 2040.

One projection sees the population as flat to 2034 and the other calls for a further decrease of 15% in the coming two decades. Whichever is correct, the more important issue may turn out to revolve around age distribution.

The third factor that jumps out from the data is the vacancy rate for county housing units. With nearly 100,000 housing units in the county, the census data currently shows 40% occupied permanently. 

Co. Trends: Population’s Aging, Decreasing

The vast majority of the units are second homes where the property owners inhabit them sporadically and most often in the summer.

The recently adopted Master Plan Reexamination Report in Stone Harbor put seasonal homeownership at 83% of all housing units. Similar percentages are available for Avalon, Sea Isle City, and Cape May Point.

Of the island communities in the county, the census vacancy rate is above 66% for all but one, West Cape May, where it stands at 59%.

In the mainland communities, Upper, Dennis, Middle, and Lower townships and Woodbine, the numbers flip with 70% of the homes occupied on a year-round basis. The permanent population of the county is largely on the mainland, where home prices are generally lower.

The census numbers show when the change took place. In 1980, for the first time, the population of the five mainland communities accounted for more than 50% of the total county population.

The most recent data shows those communities account for 66% of the county’s population, two out every three permanent residents.

Co. Trends: Population’s Aging, Decreasing

In 1980, Lower and Middle townships accounted for 34% of the county’s population. Today, they are 44%.

Trends are Clear 

The population of the county is shrinking, although studies differ on whether that will continue.

The population is aging with the outmigration from the county being largely among the young.

Second homeownership is continuing to climb with several island communities left with what amounts to caretaker permanent populations and with governing officials elected by a smaller percentage of property owners.

The tremendous increase in second homeownership has fueled a move to the mainland as smaller family homes on the islands are demolished in favor of larger, more expensive vacation homes, driving up property values and increasing the cost of island homeownership.

The county’s seasonal economy is an overlay on these demographic numbers. The economy of the county is heavily dependent on its tourism, which the latest projections show to be a $6.6 billion industry.

With this dependence comes a season rhythm to the economy. Projected employment growth, according to a Rutgers study, is lower than state averages. The seasonal nature of a tourism-driven economy means a higher unemployment rate, especially in the off-season.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Fourth Quarter 2018 Report shows Cape May County with the lowest average weekly wage of all state counties. It also states that the annual average unemployment rate for Cape May County is the highest of the state’s 21 counties.

For those benefiting from the rising property valuations and the increases in tourist spending, the numbers do not necessarily tell a sad tale. For others, they point to a potentially troubled future.

The mainland communities must provide services to two-thirds of the county’s residents while commanding only 15% of the county’s ratables.

The skewing of the age distribution towards the higher end of the scale will mean fewer children. School enrollments are likely to continue to fall, even if overall population decline abates.

The Robert Woods Johnson Foundation funds numerous community health studies. It also provides a ranking across numerous variables of community health in counties across the country. Those 2019 rankings place Cape May County 15th out of the state’s 21 counties.

The county does well on variables like available clinic care, but it plummets in the portions of the analysis that consider economic and social factors like the health impact of unemployment, income inequality and “severe housing problems.”

To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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