Where have all the children gone?

Students are disappearing in western and central Mass.

EVERY 10 YEARS, the Massachusetts Legislature must go about the arduous task of redistricting our House and Senate districts. Because of the continued shift in population within the state, each decade the districts creep farther toward Boston. The same is also true whenever Massachusetts loses a congressional seat.  In 1962, we had 14 congressional districts. Today, there are nine. US Rep. Richard Neal’s Springfield-based district now stretches from the Berkshires well into Worcester County. These shifts are being driven by a marked change in the state’s population distribution, with Bay State residents increasingly concentrated in the eastern half of the Commonwealth.

Each June, as members of the staff of the Boys State and Girls State programs, we see this play out, as some schools no longer send students to the programs and others send fewer students than they did in previous years. There are simply fewer students in these schools. This trend is very different than the depopulation resulting from shrinking family size and a decline in the number of school-age children in gentrifying places like Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, as written about here.

The number of students graduating from high schools in many cities and towns in western and central Massachusetts has declined sharply. The depopulation of these Massachusetts communities by families with children is not a good barometer of the future prospects for these places.  

The development of these towns followed a very standard pattern – industry developed near rivers; train lines followed. That is why people settled there, just as people moved to Detroit in the midst of the last century. That’s where the jobs were. Now, the jobs are gone, and the population patterns reflect this.

Since 1930, three of the four Western Mass counties have seen a decline in their representation in the overall Massachusetts population. The exception is Hampshire County, which benefited from the growth of the University of Massachusetts. What is perhaps more alarming is the rapid decline of the under-18 population since 2000. Comparing census data between 2000 and 2010, we found that despite a 3 percent increase in population for Hampshire County, its under-18 population declined by 10.5 percent. These trends are consistent among the other three Western Massachusetts counties. In these 10 years alone, the median age in Franklin County rose from 39.5 to 44.2, which is 5.1 years above the median age in Massachusetts at the time.

To look more closely at the school-age population, we reviewed data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on the number of high school graduates in Western Massachusetts and Worcester County. We looked at graduation figures for a sample of 18 high schools. In all 18 cases, there were dramatic decreases in the number of graduating seniors between 2006 and 2016. The 18 high schools had an overall decrease of 31 percent in the number of high school graduates. Some, like Gardner High, saw their graduating class size fall by half, with 254 graduates in 2006 and just 121 in 2016.

What, if anything, should we do about these trends? Perhaps there should be a concentrated public policy effort to direct some of the new economy, even some of the new economy which may not be politically popular, such as the nascent marijuana industry, to struggling communities with lower real estate and other costs. There can only be so many art museums, such as have benefited North Adams. Would a new Massachusetts Turnpike exit somewhere in the long stretch between Exit 2 in Lee and Exit 3 in Westfield be of help? What about high-speed rail, as state Sen. Eric Lesser has advocated, or a push for agritourism?

Meet the Author

Meet the Author
Alternatively, this region of Massachusetts may need to face the reality some have suggested parts of Cape Cod are already facing: a society without children.

Lawrence S. DiCara is former president of the Boston City Council and a partner at Nixon Peabody. Vincenzo Malo is a sophomore at Duke University and a resident of Leominster.