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Chesto Means Business

Loss of school-age kids threatens Cape Cod’s economy

The number of school-age children is down significantly in districts across Cape Cod.
The number of school-age children is down significantly in districts across Cape Cod.(Erin Clark for The Boston Globe/File)

What happens to a society that loses its children?

Cape Cod may learn the answer the hard way. Economist Michael Goodman posed that provocative question in a New York Times article about three years ago, a reference to the hollowing out of the Cape’s school-age population.

The situation, it’s fair to say, has not improved since.

A story in the Cape Cod Times over the weekend prompted Goodman to ask the question anew. That article focused on efforts to help young families on the Outer Cape, such as free preschool or after-school programs. But the numbers in an accompanying chart told a disturbing story of their own, one quite familiar to Cape businesses and residents — a story of demographic shifts that threaten the Cape’s economy.

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Enrollment fell significantly in nearly every school district across the Cape, compared with the 2008-09 school year, according to data from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The smaller, remote communities on the Outer Cape were hit hard, for sure. Truro was down 25 percent, for example, and Provincetown fell 27 percent. More surprising: Upper Cape towns, where people can commute more easily over the bridges, also suffered. Bourne slid 21 percent, and Sandwich’s numbers plunged 30 percent, the worst of any Cape town.

Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce chief executive Wendy Northcross says business leaders have become increasingly concerned about the labor force, since the Cape’s overall population peaked in the late 1990s. (Restrictions on visas for foreign workers who come for summer jobs have not helped.) The chamber, she says, tries to advocate for measures that could help reverse the population loss, such as allowing more apartments to be built.

But it can feel like a losing battle with a force as relentless as the waves.

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Goodman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, cites a host of culprits: environmental barriers to new construction such as wastewater and water limits, generally restrictive zoning that prevents multifamily housing, an increasing number of retirees who turn their summer homes into year-round ones.

Robert Dutch, superintendent of the Upper Cape Cod Regional Technical School, sees another force at work: the rise of Airbnb and its ilk, and the investors who use those sites to rent homes on a nightly basis. The primary cause of the Cape’s family exodus, Dutch and others say, is the high cost of housing. Dutch says he hears all the time from employers who can’t find enough employees because fewer kids are graduating Cape schools. The average age of workers at marinas and boatyards is 50, he says. There simply aren’t enough newcomers to replace those who are aging out. That dynamic plays out everywhere you turn, from landscapers to auto mechanics.

Dutch’s school bucks the downward trend; he turns away 85 to 150 kids a year. The skills his students learn are in high demand on the Cape. But he worries about the overall population decline in his school’s five-town catchment area: The number of school-age kids in those towns fell 12 percent in only the past five years.

Provincetown, on the Cape’s farthest edge, felt this pinch early. Town Manager David Panagore says “we’re trying everything we can” to react. Buying up a former time-share building and converting it to 26 apartments. Changing property tax rules to favor year-round residents. Requiring residential developers to contribute to affordable housing in town.

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Will it be enough? Panagore can’t be sure. He worries about what happens to a town — or a region — when police officers and other essential workers can no longer afford to live full time in a vacationland.

From Goodman’s perspective, Cape Cod is conducting a social experiment, testing the viability of a society without children. It’s hard to blame him for being skeptical of the outcome.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.