Numbers describe us
Readers of the five data reports newly issued by the Martha's Vineyard Commission will find the most substantial food for thought in the commission's reports on population.
The median age of the Vineyard's population is 40.7 years, four years older than the state average but four years younger than the average on Cape Cod. Chilmark's median age of 45.6 makes it the 17th-oldest town in the Commonwealth and the only Island town to rank among the state's oldest 20 communities. Overall, the Island's proportion of residents older than 60 is higher than the state average, but by a surprisingly tiny margin: 18.1 percent versus 17.2 percent statewide.
More dramatically, the commission's graph of population demographics shows a baby-boomer bulge that is larger than almost anywhere else in the state. This Island cohort of people born between 1945 and 1955 will start to hit retirement age in 2010. On the graphic, this bulge is the proverbial pig traveling through the boa constrictor; projecting ahead, it means the Island's population of people age 60 to 70 will triple by the year 2020.
Because the Island also has a distinct shortage of younger people, this aging generation may soon have trouble securing essential services. According to the MVC report, the Island has less than half the percentage of people between 15 and 35 as the state average - 21.2 percent versus 44.2 percent. Warns the report: "As the Vineyard's baby boom population surge reaches retirement age in the coming decades, the demand for health care and social services will grow."
"I must say," remarked Mr. London, "that when I took the time and finally understood that population graph, it's most interesting. In a way, it reflects what we all instinctively know: We know that young people graduate from high school and go away, and if they can afford to come back, they come back in their mid-30s when they get tired of the city and want to raise a family."
An accompanying graph tracking Island birth rates, he added, suggests that the decline in enrollments seen by public schools over the last five years promises only to continue.
Many of the main points made in this set of MVC reports are statements that have been true for generations. But some of the most interesting statistics track the fronts on which the Island community is changing most rapidly.
Chief among these is the problem of housing costs. The "Population and Housing Profile," one of two new reports that touch on housing issues, declares: "Housing prices - for purchase or summer rental - are inflated by the high prices that seasonal residents and visitors are willing to pay, and are beyond the means of many year-round residents." An accompanying graphic shows that the "affordability gap" - between the median sales price of Island homes and what a family of median income can afford - has nearly doubled in two years, from $188,800 in 2002 to $343,600 in 2004.
Another dramatic image of change that emerges from these reports is the story of West Tisbury. The population chart shows West Tisbury clustered tightly together with Chilmark and Aquinnah in 1970. But in the ensuing 30 years, the town has migrated from one pack into the other - now its population is triple that of its up-Island neighbors and rapidly approaching that of Edgartown, Tisbury, and Oak Bluffs. At the same time, West Tisbury's percentage of the Island's business establishments doubled from 1990 to 2004. In many respects, West Tisbury is becoming the fourth down-Island town.
Beyond the headlines, there's plenty of data for readers to explore in these new reports. You can read the broad statements and look down at the Island from 30,000 feet, or let the bullet points and graphs take you closer to the treetops.
One graph in the economic profile, for example, breaks out Island employment along three dimensions: the numbers of people employed in each sector of the labor market, the wages brought in, and the number of employers. Examination of this graph reveals that while the construction sector accounts for just eight percent of the Island workforce, it brings in 13 percent of all Island wages. The very opposite is true of the industries traditionally connected with tourism - accommodation, food service, arts and entertainment, recreation and retail: These account for 44 percent of all Island jobs but just 41 percent of all Island income.