December 8, 2021

Census: Population falls, diversity rises

Cortland County sees influx of people of color in demographic shift similar to rest of nation

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Seth Thompson came to Cortland in 2006 and now works at Tompkins Cortland Community College. Since he came to town, the number of people of color in Cortland County has more than doubled, even as the total population in the county has dropped more than 5%.

Cortland County lost more than 5% of its population between 2010 and 2020, show the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, down to fewer than 47,000 residents.

But if it hadn’t been for an influx of people of color — a 128.3% increase of Black, Asian, Hispanic and others — that decline would have been much more severe.

The white-only population dropped 12%.

Tompkins County saw a similar shift, even as its population grew 4.1% to 105,740.

The white-only population dropped 6.3%, while the population of people of color grew 53.7%.

The shift in demographics follows a national trend.

A 20/20 Look at Cortland

The decennial Census is a treasure trove of data about the community. Here’s what the latest information shows.

TODAY: Cortland County’s population dropped more than 5% in 10 years. Except the minority population, which doubled.

MONDAY: The population is down, but the number of housing units is rising. Why?

TUESDAY: Population shifts within the county and its communities will affect representation in city and county governments.

For the first time in U.S. history, the raw population of white-only people has dropped, while the people of color and multi-racial populations increased — between 18% and 215%, in Cortland County’s case.

Nationally, the white-only population dropped to 57.8% of the population from 63.7%, data show, driving by falling birth rates among white women compared with other races. It was also the first time the raw number of whiteonly people dropped, to 191 million from 196 million.

“The U.S. population is much more multiracial and much more racially and ethnically diverse than what we have measured in the past,” said Nicholas Jones, a Census Bureau official.


That change comes, in part, from people like Seth Thompson, of Cortland, who moved to Cortland from Syracuse in 2006 for a job at Tompkins Cortland Community College.

Since about that time, the percentage of Black residents in Cortland County increased to 1.9% in 2020 from 1.5% of the county’s population in 2010, Census data show.

The percentage of Asian, Hispanic or Latino and other races and ethnicities residents in the county grew as well. Thompson, an African-American man, noticed that change.

“I can definitely say that representational diversity by race and ethnicity has increased over the years,” he said.

In fact, only the percentage of white county residents decreased between 2010 and 2020, from 95.1% to 88.1%, according to Census data.

Thompson saw the change when his son Caleb started going to school in the Cortland Enlarged City School District in 2007 — where he was one of two students of color — to when his daughters Madalyn and Madison started school in 2013.

“As a family, that’s something we pay attention to,” he said.


The population shift in Cortland County also mirrors another national trend — shrinking rural areas.

The biggest declines, as a share of population, came in Cincinnatus, Willet and Taylor, all rural towns in the county’s southeast quarter.

Virgil and Freetown saw slight increases, between 1% and 1.3%, but the populations are so small the total jump was fewer than 35 people.

Other than the city of Cortland, which lost 8.6% of its population, the losses in the county’s urban core — including Cortlandville and Homer — were more moderate, 1.2% to 1.7%.

Trisha Jesset, the director of planning for the Cortland County Planning Department, was unsure of what caused the declines in populations but noted interesting trends.

While population saw bigger declines in the rural towns of Willet, Truxton and Taylor, out-of-county residents — most notably from downstate — have purchased property in those municipalities, she said. One property use in particular is hunting.

Because their residency is elsewhere, they are not counted as Cortland County residents, she said.

Jesset was surprised about the decreases in village populations, such as in Homer.

“I am surprised about the decrease in the villages where there has been a lot of development,” she said.


Thompson’s experience in Cortland has been relatively positive, though he has experienced uncomfortable stares and been asked by police officers if he owns his car as a first question when pulled over rather than the usual request for his license and registration.

Thompson said he holds no ill will against police — some of his neighbors are police officers.

Rather, he sees this as a lack of diversity, that people might have tension against others they are unfamiliar with.

“That’s why it’s good for Cortland to get to know one another,” he said.

That diversity as well can help aid the community and state as a whole, providing greater exposure to different backgrounds that can improve municipalities’ well-being, Thompson said.

He suggested other opportunities, such as having the city of Cortland creating public WiFi as part of its $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative, may also help in getting out the word on Cortland and attracting new people.

One way to increase Cortland County’s diversity may be through the mode that brought Thompson to Cortland in the first place: jobs.

He noted that there are great school districts and colleges — SUNY Cortland and TC3 — around Cortland that could help encourage working parents to move to the county.

“If we could advertise more of what we have, we could get more people,” Thompson said.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.