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Good news!
How life in NH is getting better (sorta)

12/16/10



Financial scandals, a horrific home invasion, elderly women getting mugged and sex offenders running rampant — news outlets can’t seem to get enough of the bad stuff happening in New Hampshire.
Whether it’s tied to the economic collapse or not, bad news has sort of stolen all the headlines.
All that negativity can sometimes get in the way of all the good things that are happening — and there are good things happening in New Hampshire. The state has seen its high school dropout rate cut nearly in half in recent years. The Granite State remains one of the nation’s safest, and economic conditions remain substantially better here than elsewhere. In the spirit of the season, here is a look at some of the more optimistic reports on life in New Hampshire — with the occasional grain of salt.

Tourism will increase this winter!
All the news coming out of the state’s Division of Travel and Tourism Development seems to be positive. The Division is winning awards for its website (www.visitnh.gov) and its social media presence, and a recent report suggested the state will see an increase in tourism this winter season.

“I think things are going good,” said Tai Freligh, communications manager for the Division. “It’s definitely better than last year. It’s still not great ... I still think the economy is recovering.”
And if tourism is heading in the right direction, that’s a good sign for the state, as tourism is the second-most lucrative industry in the Granite State. It falls behind manufacturing.

“It’s a big economic driver,” Freligh said.

Direct spending by travelers reached $4.21 billion in Fiscal Year 2009 and supported 62,500 direct, full-time and part-time jobs. Visitors paid $136.4 million in meals and rooms taxes, which amounts to 65 percent of all meals and rooms taxes collected in Fiscal Year 2009. In terms of a return on an investment, for every $1 the Division spent, $9 was returned to the state in the form of state and local taxes and fees, according to the Division.

Freligh said every holiday weekend in the past year has seen an increase in business from the previous year. For a few weekends, businesses were telling state officials they experienced record weekends.
This past summer was especially helpful for business, as weather played a positive role, as opposed to all the rain the state and region saw in the summer of 2009 — “That just really drowned out the summer,” Freligh said. “This year summer was great. The weather was great. It helps get some momentum for the rest of the year.

Officials are hoping the good times roll into the winter, and a recent report by the Institute for New Hampshire Studies suggests they will. The state could be looking at 6.6 million visitors this winter, an increase of 4 percent from last year, according to the report. The report is predicting an 8-percent increase in spending by tourists and business travelers as well, which would bring the total spending to $840 million. The period from December to February accounts for about 19 percent of all traveler visits and 21 percent of total traveler spending.

Outdoor recreation, including skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling, visiting family and friends, scenic drives and shopping are the most popular reasons for visiting the state in the winter, said Lori Harnois, director of the Division of Travel and Tourism Development, in a state press release. Along with more general travel, the report suggests the state will take in more week-long family vacations, as well as more business and conference travel.

The state website offers several itineraries for interested travelers. Take a tour of breweries in the state or visit some of the state’s cheese makers. Toss in some wineries as well.

“People love it,” Freligh said, adding the website has had a couple redesigns in recent years to make it as user-friendly as possible. “I think that has really helped. ... I think people recognize the website is a great resource. Pretty much all of our promotions point back to the website. It’s the hub.”New Hampshire has benefited from being a small state that has a lot jammed into it, with the scenic beauty being the biggest draw. With 18 miles of coastline, the Lakes Region, the White Mountains, and the Monadnock region, people can hit a variety of different areas in the same day.

“You could be on your boat in the morning on Lake Winnipesaukee; by the afternoon, you could be getting tan on the beach or hiking in the White Mountains,” Freligh said.

Officials have been seeing more and more staycations, as people from the state vacation here as well. A big part of the tourism market has always been the “drive” market, with people from the other New England states taking a few hours or less and driving into the Granite State. With the economy as it is and with people having concerns about flying, people are more apt to hit the road in their own car, Freligh said.
State tourism officials are noticing more travelers coming to New Hampshire for specific events, such as Bike Week in Laconia or the New Hampshire League of Craftsmen fair.

“People will come book activities around an event,” Freligh said, adding people will work in some tax-free shopping or hit the slopes around the event they’re attending.

Freligh noted a recent Associated Press article that reported more Vermont shoppers were crossing the border to take advantage of tax-free New Hampshire.

The state has also noticed interest in tourism related to the history and culture of the state. He noted the new Franco American Heritage Tour in Manchester as an example. The state also has a popular itinerary that retraces President Abraham Lincoln’s steps when he visited the state.

People are doing more educational trips as well, where they come to the state and partake in an activity, like taking cooking classes or staying with the Appalachian Mountain Club for a few nights while doing trail maintenance, Freligh said.

“They’re kind of looking to give back and also learn something,” Freligh said.
The state has about 21,500 fans on Facebook and thousands of followers on Twitter.
“It’s a great place to interact directly with the state,” Freligh said, adding fans or followers receive exclusive travel offers.

The Division will launch its winter promotion in the coming weeks.

New Hampshire’s unemployment rate is nearly half the national average!
While an unemployment rate just less than 5.5 percent isn’t exactly cause for celebration, it is evidence the state is doing some things right.

The Great Recession of 2008 hit on a local, regional, national and global level — New Hampshire couldn’t escape that, and 4.5 percent of the jobs in the state were lost. But New Hampshire is well on its way to recovery.

“We’re already halfway back to recovering the jobs we lost,” said Dennis Delay, an economist with the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies. His recent economic projections have the state recovering all the jobs it lost in the most recent recession by the first quarter of 2012. “We have one of the fastest growth rates in jobs of any state in the country. The only area that did better than us was Washington, D.C. We weren’t hurt as badly. It didn’t decline as much.”

The U.S. economy lost 6 percent of its jobs, while the unemployment rate rose to 10 percent. New Hampshire saw its unemployment rate grow to 7 percent before it began to drop. It currently sits at 5.4 percent in New Hampshire compared to 9.6 percent nationally.

Several factors contributed to New Hampshire’s better economic footing. New Hampshire didn’t participate in the real estate bubble (and accompanying increase in building) as much as did other states, such as Florida. New Hampshire still saw some impacts from the real estate crisis, but not nearly to the same degree as elsewhere. Secondly, New Hampshire has a little more diversity in the make-up of its industries than other states, both in terms of type and size. With more small firms, the state didn’t become overly dependent on a single company. That helped us weather the economic storm, Delay said.

“When you have one industry just dominate an economy and things go bad, that can really hurt badly,” Delay said. “In New Hampshire, we don’t have that.”

Additionally, Delay said the state’s population has a greater rate of educated people and the poverty rate is the lowest in the country.

“We have a more resilient economy,” Delay said.

Still, the North Country, which has been dependent on paper companies, is suffering as those companies fall apart.

Historically, New Hampshire hasn’t always been so diverse. In the early 1980s, the entire region was dependent on computer-related companies, particularly Digital Equipment. When businesses switched to PCs, the region was hit hard. In the 1960s and 1970s, New Hampshire’s economy was driven largely by textiles and shoes. When those industries fell by the wayside, it hurt, Delay said.

“You can see the result of that, when that industry goes into a sunset, it’s painful,” Delay said.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the state did experience a bad real estate bubble. Delay, though he said it was just a theory, said perhaps the state got a first-hand look at what could happen if it became too dependent on real estate — perhaps that’s why New Hampshire fared better this time around.

“New Hampshire is a very small state,” Delay said. “...We’re a small part of the world economy but we’re tied to the world economy by the same token....”

So if things go south globally, New Hampshire still isn’t immune, particularly in the realm of energy. New Hampshire imports pretty much all of its energy from elsewhere, though it is working toward increasing the amount of renewable energy it consumes. The state still doesn’t have any oil or gas wells or coal mines. When energy prices rise, it’s good for places like Texas and West Virginia, but not so much in the Granite State, Delay said.

“It’s all relative,” Delay said. “Relative to other states, we’re doing pretty well. Relative to three years ago, we’re halfway back, in terms of the number of jobs. Unemployment is still in the high, high fives, which is not typical for New Hampshire. Usually it’s in the low threes. We’ve still got an unemployment rate that’s two to three percentage points above the long-term average.”

“We’re not doing well relative to what I would call a normal economy,” Delay said.

Delay’s economic projections for New Hampshire do assume the federal government will take some action on the Bush tax cuts. President Barack Obama recently struck a deal with Republicans on those cuts. If that holds true, it would mean lower taxes and probably a little more business stimulus. Delay is figuring the tax cuts extension could drop the national unemployment rate by a couple percentage points, with the New Hampshire rate falling right with it.

We have a $70 million budget surplus!
In the midst of Gov. John Lynch’s reelection campaign this fall, he announced the state had accrued a $70 million surplus for the Fiscal Year 2010 budget, which ended this past June.

“In terms of recent years of New Hampshire history, it is much better news than we’ve had,” said Charles Arlinghaus, executive director of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy in Concord.

With the much-maligned economic issues circulating so regularly in the headlines, the notion of a budget surplus was downright incredible. It was less than two years prior that legislators had been dealing with a massive hole in the state budget. There are several factors contributing to the surplus, including federal stimulus dollars.

“We came together to address an enormous challenge and close a significant revenue shortfall in just a few short months,” Gov. John Lynch said in a statement at the time of the surplus announcement. “Through our strong fiscal management, we were able to not only balance the budget, but also generate a $70 million surplus, and we did it without a sales tax, without an income tax, without an estate tax, and without a capital gains tax.”

But that doesn’t mean all is well on the budget front. It is true the state ended the last fiscal year with a surplus, and it will probably end the current fiscal year about even, which is also significant. But the good news ends there. The state will begin the 2012-2013 biennial budget with a deficit of about $820 million, says Arlinghaus. The amount of the budget hole has ranged from about $500 million to $900 million in news reports.

In the last budget, revenues came in a little higher than legislators had expected. There were also a series of one-time windfalls. The state received federal stimulus money to help with the budget. The state was supposed to receive $80 million per year in Fiscal Years 2010 and 2011. The state ended up getting all the money at once, and it subsequently used it all in the first year of the two-year budget, Arlinghaus said.
The thinking at the time was that the state would use all the stimulus money at once and then make up the hole in the second year of the budget by selling state assets. The idea of selling assets is a good one, Arlinghaus said, because if the state owns something it doesn’t need, it should get rid of it. Selling assets provides a one-time influx of cash, and the state was expecting to garner about $60 million from selling things off. It ended up cashing in $3 million, Arlinghaus said.

Ordinarily that would create a problem, but this time around, the state fell into a few one-time business tax windfalls that showed up in odd ways. One was paid late so it didn’t show up on the most recent revenue statement. It all ultimately resulted in the state’s making up the sale of assets differential and walking into the current fiscal year with $70 million in hand.

But there’s a gigantic hole staring legislators in the face when the next two-year budget begins on July 1, 2011.

Only once since World War II has the state budget declined. That was in Gov. Steve Merrill’s second term and it declined by 1 percent.

“This budget will have to decline by about 10 percent,” Arlinghaus said. “The task is more significant than anything we have ever faced.”

Arlinghaus got his figure of $820 million by taking the current level of spending compared to many of the one-time measures legislators took last time around to make the budget work. That means the state has to pay for things like school building aid and debt services, which it bonded last time around. Arlinghaus also factored in a supposed temporary cut in local aid and a mandated increase in education funding — and the lack of stimulus dollars.

The state moved $160 million in school building aid and debt service and bonded it, which everyone agrees was not sustainable. The state also had a total of $351 million in stimulus money in the last budget it won’t have this time around.

So the legislature has to either cut spending or raise taxes by $820 million. Assuming there is a 3-percent increase in revenues, which Arlinghaus said is sort of the median guess, the hole would drop to $666 million.

“There’s not one place,” Arlinghaus said. “The problem is so large that the solution has to come from everywhere. Every single department and agency in state government is going to have to cut spending, some by more than others....”

The areas of Medicaid, Department of Corrections and education aid remain the state’s budget-drivers, the fastest-growing areas.

“Changing a budget is not a matter of cutting fat,” Arlinghaus said. “It’s a matter of cutting priorities. There’s never really fat in a budget. There are higher priorities and lower priorities.
“Every program competes against every other program.”

It’s really safe here! No, really!
In recent months, headline after headline has detailed some horrific crime in New Hampshire. Many of them probably make people think pretty hard about getting an alarm system or not living in secluded areas.
Yet crime rates nationally and in New Hampshire are down, dramatically down.

Ted Kirkpatrick, associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of New Hampshire, said the decline includes all the major violent crimes, such as murder, rape and aggravated assault. Kirkpatrick is co-director of UNH’s JusticeWorks program and is a clinical professor of sociology.

New Hampshire, along with all of northern New England, has had historically lower crime rates than the rest of the nation, so the drop in crime rate wasn’t as dramatic in New Hampshire as it was elsewhere, but that was just because it was so low already, Kirkpatrick said.

A report earlier this year by CQ Press, which is based in Washington, D.C., found New Hampshire to be the safest state in the nation in terms of crime. The study looked at crimes in the categories of assault, murder, rape, motor vehicle theft and burglary. It’s the third year in a row New Hampshire has been named the safest state in the study. New Hampshire saw 14 murders out of a population of about 1.3 million people, while Vermont, which CQ Press ranked second, saw 17 murders in 2008 in a population of about 621,000 people. New Hampshire had the second-lowest rate of aggravated assault with 94.7 cases per 100,000 citizens, according to the report, which looked at statistics from 2008. New Hampshire experienced 10 murders last year. Massachusetts, which ranked 21st in the report and had a population of 6.5 million people, experienced 167 murders in 2008.

Kirkpatrick calls it a puzzle to figure out why the crime rate has dropped while fears have risen. In the middle of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s and with news of some particularly horrific crimes, it seems counterintuitive that crime could actually be on the decline. But there is unanimous agreement among criminologists that crime is happening less.

The 24/7 news cycle contributes to the perception that crime is happening more frequently. Take the home invasion in Mont Vernon where a mother was killed with a machete and her daughter seriously injured. The incident happened more than a year ago, but it’s been in the news consistently ever since, even more so recently as one of the four men charged in the crime recently stood trial and was convicted, while another is beginning his defense.

“The Vietnam War was really the first global incident that was brought right into our living rooms,” Kirkpatrick said. “Something happened then that made news much more immediate. Think about the speed with which information travels. The immediacy. We have widescreen televisions that are wider than our sofas. We’re bound to feel somewhat afraid.”

Kirkpatrick said people are more concerned about their children and the idea they might be snatched by a child predator. The reality is that predators do exist, but to a much lesser extent than they did about 20 years ago.

Kirkpatrick figures there are multiple forces conspiring to make the crime rate drop. There’s simply better police work. Forensics are better. Victims survive more today because of medical advances — the surviving victims become witnesses whereas in years past perhaps there was no witness. Additionally, support networks are stronger and people, in general, are much more vigilant about crime, Kirkpatrick said.
“All of those things conspire to produce a happy outcome,” Kirkpatrick said. “But it sure doesn’t feel that way.”

It’s not stopping more people from getting car alarms or double-bolting their doors. It’s a reasonable state of mind, of course, given all the bad news people are inundated with. “People are watching all these horrible things,” Kirkpatrick said. “Who wouldn’t go out and bolt their door?”

Beyond policing and medicinal advances, the social capital in New Hampshire is stronger. Community and school ties are tighter, which helps unite people better. The gun culture in New Hampshire is more of a hunting culture, as opposed to what the gun culture might be in other higher-crime areas.

“Whatever we’re doing is paying positive dividends and we ought to be very circumspect about that,” Kirkpatrick said.

Fewer of our high school students drop out!

Four years ago the state raised the compulsory school age from 16 to 18, while also expanding its offerings in terms of alternative pathways to reach graduation — and it’s worked.

Since the 2001-2002 school year, the state has seen its four-year cumulative dropout rate fall from 15.1 percent to 6.7 percent last school year. A report earlier this year revealed New Hampshire’s 5.6-percent gain in its graduation rate ranked sixth nationally from 2002 to 2008.

“We have made it a priority to ensure more of our young people earn a high school diploma so that they will be able to succeed and so that New Hampshire businesses will have the workforce they need for the future, and our efforts are producing real results,” Gov. John Lynch said in a recent press release. “Since I have been governor, we have reduced the number of young people dropping out of high school by 50 percent. We must keep working together to ensure every New Hampshire young person has the opportunity to compete and succeed, and that must start with ensuring they graduate from high school.”

State education officials knew that if the compulsory age was raised, they’d need to put in place more resources and more extended learning opportunities to accommodate students, particularly students who don’t thrive in the traditional classroom setting, said Paul Leather, deputy commissioner of the Department of Education.

“I think it’s worked quite well,” Leather said. “Each year it’s picked up speed.”

Leather said the Department is making changes based on research. And he’s seen a real commitment from educators.

“I can’t say enough about what they’ve done,” Leather said.

Alternative programs include the PASS program at the Manchester School of Technology, which is designed for students who need a little bit more engagement and connection to their schooling. Students do their classroom work in the morning and then in the afternoon they are involved in career and technical programs that are more “real world-oriented,” Leather said.

An expanded offering of adult education programs has also helped get more students through high school. Leather spoke at the Adult Education School of Technology’s graduation last year.

“It’s just impressive all the parents and kids,” Leather said. “In years past, adult education was more young and old adults coming back to school to learn how to read. You go to a graduation these days, it’s kids who for whatever reason, day school hadn’t worked for them. They needed a different approach. Maybe they’re working during the day…and this really works better for them.”

The Virtual Learning Academy in Exeter offers credit recovery programs for students, which are competency-based. That allows students, instead of taking an entire course again, they can focus on the areas they had trouble with.

“All these kinds of things…we’re finding a way for every kid to graduate,” Leather said. “It really makes a difference that Gov. Lynch made it a major focus of his.”
Lynch has set a goal of having zero dropouts by 2012.

“Educators are taking that very seriously,” Leather said.

The poverty rate remains low in the Granite State!

New Hampshire has consistently ranked at the top or near the top when it comes to lowest poverty rates nationwide. A report this year suggested the state still holds a strong standing nationally.

Many of the factors that helped New Hampshire do a better job of weathering the economic storm the past few years are the same ones that help the state keep its poverty rates lower than elsewhere. Officials point to the state’s historically low unemployment rate as a big reason for why the poverty rate  is lower in the Granite State. The state’s variety of industries help keep the state on solid economic footing.

It doesn’t mean it isn’t a growing problem, however. Perhaps the economic meltdown is to blame, but the state has seen the numbers of people who need assistance grow dramatically in the past few years. 
For eight out of the last nine years, New Hampshire has ranked number one in terms of children’s well-being, according to a study this year by the Anne E. Casey Foundation. The report relies on data collected between 2000 and 2008, which means it doesn’t take into account the hit the state took as the economy fell apart.

According to a Boston Globe article, the state still held the lowest child poverty rate nationally in the report, despite taking on a 50-percent increase during the eight-year period. While 6 percent of children were living in poverty in 2000, 9 percent were in 2008. The national rate jumped 6 percent during the same time period, the article said.

The Division of Family Assistance provides a safety net for people in the form of food stamps. The state’s food stamps program determines eligibility by income and cashable assets and there is no cap on it. If someone is eligible, they’re eligible. There’s no way around it, said Terry Smith, director of the Division of Family Assistance.

Food stamps are sort of the canary in the coal mine for the economy, Smith said.

In June 2008 the state had 31,830 cases, and as of this month it has 52,960 cases, an increase of 21,130 cases or 66 percent. Smith pointed to June 2008 as that was when case loads began to increase steadily. During 2009, there was a 10-month period where cases were increasing by 1,000 per month. For several years, the largest increase in cases in a given month was 300, Smith said.

“Every state has shown this kind of increase,” Smith said, adding that at one point New Hampshire was the fifth fastest growing state in terms of cases.

While the growth in cases has slowed, cases still jumped by 394 in November.
Dealing with the massive increase hasn’t been easy, Smith said.

The Division operates on a sort of “triple inverse parallel.” When the economy goes south, the Division’s business dramatically rises, but at the same time, the state has less money to give to the resources people need. So that means the Division is handling 66 percent more cases with the same level of staff. Additionally, community resources, such as food pantries and soup kitchens, are strained.
To make it work, Smith said, the Division is working to transform the way it operates.

“We’re looking at creating technological advances that will give us more flexibility…,” Smith said. Smith noted the Division is implementing a digital imaging process so that, say, a worker in Berlin can help out an overburdened staff in Manchester without having to travel. Only in Laconia, the Division will be piloting a program so that people can apply for services over the web without having to come into the office.
Commissioner Nicholas Toumpas recently approved unfreezing five eligibility workers to be placed in the North Country.

While the increasing case loads certainly aren’t good news, there are services for people when they need them. And though the unemployment rate is lessening now, Smith said assistance would be available if and when folks ultimately lose unemployment and need help.

 






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