New Hampshire's First Congressional District
This past October, New Hampshire Democratic Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter dropped a major bombshell: she will not seek re-election in 2018. Now, one of the most high-profile swing districts in the country—New Hampshire’s First—is up for grabs.
As it happens, we were driving through the Seacoast, Manchester, and the Lakes Region just days before Shea-Porter’s announcement. We were there to hear firsthand from residents about what it’s like to live in NH-01.
We were there precisely because of the district’s fickle nature. This seat has toggled between red and blue in every election since 2007. In 2016, Shea-Porter once again defeated Republican incumbent Frank Guinta with a one-point margin. Meanwhile, Trump eked out a one-point win in a district that had previously voted for Obama twice.
NH-01 was the fifth stop on our national tour of select swing districts. In many ways, NH-01 was the most familiar. Campaigns, schools, and family had brought all of us to the state many times over the years, and we were familiar with its granite and tree-lined highways, flinty New England hospitality, and devotion to Dunkin’ Donuts and the Patriots.
Nevertheless, much of what we heard surprised us, opened our eyes, broke our hearts, and challenged our point of view. From educators to union members and from business leaders to students, we heard from 31 people about NH-01’s many virtues, like its booming economy and lovely geography, as well as its most vexing problems, including an opioid crisis and a serious shortage of skilled workers.
These conversations were conducted one-on-one or in small groups in casual settings. We generally asked the same set of questions that focus more on life than politics. Our conversations were not structured as scientific public opinion research; anecdotes from 31 NH-01 residents cannot comprehensively capture and account for what life is like for everyone living there. But it can sketch a picture of some of the major tensions and challenges faced by this specific place in America. Some of what we heard was unique to NH-01; some echoed themes we’ve heard throughout our district visits. Here’s what we think we learned about New Hampshire’s First District:
We always begin with the question, “What is it like to live here?” With characteristic salty charm, one union member offered, “Sometimes it’s hot; sometimes it’s cold.”
It happened to be abnormally warm for October in New England, and the foliage was underwhelming. Autumn hued or no, New Hampshire is charming, and the people we spoke to almost all agreed it’s a nice place to live and raise a family. There are mountains, ocean, and lakes, and the southern portion has easy access to Boston. There are low taxes (no income or sales tax) and some good jobs. And it has a prized political tradition as the first in the nation presidential primaries.
NH-01 sits in the southeastern part of the state, encompassing rural and urban pockets with most of the population living near Manchester. The people there tend to be neither diverse (it’s 94 percent white) nor religious (it ties with Massachusetts as the least religious state in the country).1
Statewide economic numbers paint a rosy picture of New Hampshire. The median income is the highest in the nation at $71,000, and is about $15,000 more than the national average2, and its unemployment is just 2.8 percent,3 the third lowest state rate in the nation. Ninety-two percent of its adult residents have a high school diploma, and 35 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher. A low crime rate makes it the third safest state in the country.4
But that’s not an accurate reflection of how many of the people we spoke to feel about life in NH-01. Scratch beneath the surface, and New Hampshire has “problems same as Detroit,” as one local charity leader put it.
High Costs of Living
NH-01 is only 2,463.65 square miles, but it spans many different worlds. Portsmouth is posh and thriving. Manchester is hipster meets hippy. Rochester is post-industrial economic anemia. And the Lakes Region is sparse and beautiful. Though geographically close, these places face very different realities.
Portsmouth is a vibrant seaside community with a booming economy. In the past decade, it’s seen tremendous development, which is beginning to make it “look like New York,” according to one resident. River views and a vibrant farm-to-table culinary scene have made it a popular tourist destination, while close proximity to Boston and friendly tax laws have also made it a magnet for retirees.
A mere 22 miles away, Rochester is a “totally different animal,” a Portsmouth business leader said. Its main street is dotted with empty storefronts, dollar stores, and a pawn shop. We saw no more than ten people walking around during a weekday lunch hour (and four of the men, all walking alone on a warmish day, were inexplicably shirtless). It once was a manufacturing town, but a lot of people left with the industry. Those who stayed don’t wander much. One Rochester community college student said that the Portsmouth campus, a 30-minute drive away, felt too far away.
“People from Rochester tend to stay in Rochester,” a local educator said, adding that fewer people here a college education and many don’t even finish high school.
Uniting people from these two different communities is anxiety about the increasingly high cost of living in New Hampshire—a Portsmouth teacher described it as the “victim of its success.” Another Portsmouth teacher told us she could never afford to buy a home there now. She bought her home for $139,000 more than a decade ago—now the median house value is $481,000.
The average rent in New Hampshire has doubled since 2000, and the median rent in Rockingham County, where Portsmouth is located, is $1,409 per month for a 2-bedroom unit. The state’s rental vacancy rate is 1.7 percent—far below the national average (7.3 percent). Such a tight rental market is particularly difficult for young people entering the workforce and for service workers, who make up a large part of the NH-01 economy.5
I worry about kids having better standards of living than parents,
"I worry about kids having better standards of living than parents," one of the Portsmouth teachers said. “They might have to move away or marry software engineers.”
Of course this is much more acutely felt in poorer pockets of the state, which exist even in Portsmouth. “A lot of low-income [pockets are] invisible and hidden from view behind the theatre, the mall, the overpass,” a Portsmouth teacher said. “The higher is getting higher, and lower getting lower.”
As head of a statewide charity, one of the men we met works closely with the people who fall through the cracks. He talked about how New Hampshire’s low unemployment number can be deceptive. For example, he shared an anecdote about one single mother who is pursuing her education master’s while she lives out of a car with her three kids. Another woman who works in childcare spends half her paycheck on daycare for her own children. “These are the types [of people] who go unnoticed,” he said. “They’re not technically unemployed.”
The state’s farmers are also feeling the squeeze. They’re seeing little job growth and are pinched by the high cost of land. “Encroaching development creeping up from Boston is the biggest threat [to New Hampshire’s] rural community,” a Republican politician and farmer said. “Land sold to development hurts farmers because it drives costs up.” He’s particularly concerned about the elderly in the community and how they’ll afford rising costs in their sunset years.
In sum, even people living in a state with a steadily growing economy, low unemployment rate, and high median income are left wondering, as the charity leader asked, “Is there even a middle class?”
The Jobs Puzzle
One of New Hampshire’s most pressing problems, by some accounts, is a pretty good problem to have: it has more job openings than people to fill them. There were approximately 17,000 unfilled jobs in the state as of December.6
We are desperate for workers...if you’re standing and breathing, you’re hired.
“We are desperate for workers,” a Portsmouth business leader said. “If you’re standing and breathing, you’re hired.” She said that restaurants and hotels are having to turn down events because they don’t have enough bodies to fulfill the requests.
But it’s not just low-paying service employers who are scrambling for workers. New Hampshire’s aging population is creating an insatiable demand for health care workers. Many openings also are in advanced manufacturing, with salaries that would put someone solidly in the middle class, a community college programs administrator told us. This high-tech manufacturing involves gleaming, brightly lit facilities rather than dark factories, and lab coats instead of overalls.
Advanced manufacturing is a relatively new industry, one that is frequently touted by politicians as a jobs savior. Its emergence has been welcomed with open arms by the state. Manufacturing one of the top 3 industries there, along with health care and tourism. Advanced manufacturing produces a range of products, from Scott Electronics in Salem that produces fiber optic cables and electronic boxes to Safran’s plant in Rochester that produces 3D composites for the aerospace industry. But these businesses’ inability to fill jobs is a serious problem, with the risk that companies might relocate to places with more available qualified workers.
The origins of this conundrum are easy enough to explain—to an extent. New Hampshire’s population is small and, like much of the country, it’s greying. But this problem seems acutely bad in the Granite State. The 65-to-74 age group is expected to grow by 52,000 by 2025, while its 25-to-62 population is projected to shrink by 53,000 in the same period.7 Between 2006 and 2016, the national prime-age population (ages 25-to-54) ticked up about one-percent. New Hampshire’s prime-age population fell by more than 11 percent. In spite of this, NH’s labor force still increased by two percent. This is almost certainly due to increased labor force participation by older workers, including retirement-aged people—not the most sustainable group on which to hang hopes for economic growth.8
But given New Hampshire’s glowing economic statistics, this explanation isn’t satisfactory. Why is the state struggling to retain and attract a larger workforce? We are perplexed by this economic riddle and eager to find the answer. This report will not provide it. Instead, we’ll attempt to distill what we heard about some of the various forces at play that are both parts of the problems and the eventual solution.
A Changing Workforce
The crux of this problem is nurturing and retaining the next generation workforce. We heard time and again that young people are fleeing the state. This complaint also arose frequently in our visits to Illinois, Wisconsin, and Arizona, where parents fretted that their kids would leave their hometowns to prosper. But New Hampshire’s youth flight is particularly extreme—nearly 60 percent of its college graduates leave the state after graduation.9
That stark number was reflected in what we heard in our conversations. Every parent we spoke to said their kids didn’t plan to stay in New Hampshire after graduation (high school or college), but hoped to “return to the roost” eventually. They attributed this flight to a drive to find jobs in certain industries (like film), a need to find a job that pays enough to repay their student loans, or simply a desire to live in a big city.
New Hampshire’s community colleges are at the frontlines of the effort to fight this flight and secure the next generation workforce. The State of New Hampshire, with the help of a $20 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, is investing heavily in establishing training programs through the community college system to create a pipeline of employees for the advanced manufacturing industry.
We visited one of these programs, where we met with many members of its staff and some current and former students. Its location in a non-descript strip mall with a discount liquor store belies the state-of-the-art facilities inside and deep connection to the local industry. Nevertheless, the program is seriously undersubscribed.
“We should be running three programs of 15 students each year,” an administrator said with visible frustration. “We’re struggling to run one.”
Students who complete the program are all but guaranteed “seriously good jobs.” Some companies will even pay for students to attend classes while also paying them a full salary and offering a guaranteed job upon completion. “With this, they should be flocking to this center, and they’re not,” she said, raising her hands and shaking her head in disbelief.
We couldn’t wrap our heads around why companies can’t find bodies to fill these jobs. Neither could the people we met with. “I don’t have answers. I don’t get it,” another college administrator said.
Labor unions also are struggling to recruit young people. The average membership age of the union we visited is 48. “We don’t have any young people,” one member said. “Trying to find kids…is difficult.”
There are a few theories as to why they’re not getting a lot of interest. First, as noted above, it’s a matter of simple arithmetic. “We are producing fewer high school grads, demographics are changing, and we have a greying population,” a man who helps manage the community college’s partnerships with local businesses explained.
But that explanation only goes so far, given New Hampshire’s flight of college graduates. The cultural and class forces at play frequently came up in our conversations.
“Manufacturing still connotes a job that is ‘dirty, dark, and dangerous.’ Did you see anything dirty, dark, and dangerous in there?” a college administrator asked, referring to the school’s lab rooms. We didn’t. The facilities were so pristine that we were afraid to touch anything.
At first, we wondered if that’s what was scaring people away—traditional manufacturing and advanced manufacturing are night and day. We wondered if that intimidated people who wanted the familiarity of old manufacturing jobs.
But we heard more of the opposite: people hear “manufacturing” and they assume it’s backbreaking, monotonous work—they want nothing to do with it. The industry is struggling to overcome the stigma attached to old manufacturing jobs. “These aren’t your parent’s dirty manufacturing jobs,” a community college employee echoed. “These are high-tech, trained jobs.”
Factories aren’t what they used to be. Now, they need education.
That brings us to another barrier to entry: the skills gap. “Factories aren’t what they used to be. Now, they need education,” a state representative told us. These jobs don’t need a college degree. They don’t even necessarily need an associate’s degree. But they do require some training and some basic math skills.
This is problematic in two directions. On the one hand, too often community college training programs are thought to be beneath those students who are expected to attend a four-year college.
Indeed, many students in areas like Portsmouth are experiencing intense parent- and self-driven pressure to achieve, according to two local teachers. “They are imploding and are melting down,” Anna said. “They’re being hospitalized for anxiety and self-harm. More kids have been hospitalized in the last three years than I saw in the fourteen previous years.”
We met a young man who entered the training program right out of high school. He told us he was considered a deadbeat back home for going to community college instead of a four-year college. In fact, he decided it was the more “economically sound” option. He did the math and realized through this program he would earn $15 to $20 per hour at the age of 19 and go to school “on [the company’s] dime instead of ‘10 to 15 years in debt.’”
“Would what I learned [at a four-year institution] still be relevant when I graduated?” he asked.
But for another portion of the population, we heard in many of our conversations that any form of higher education feels entirely out of reach, especially for young people who would be the first in their family to go to college and/or need to get a job right away to support their families.
“This area has a lack of confidence and lack of knowledge about options,” an academic counselor said, referring to Rochester. “People here’s parents told them not to [go back to school].”
This sentiment was echoed by charity workers in the Manchester-area who interact daily with the region’s poorest population. “The tracks are laid out since birth,” a Manchester woman said. “It takes a lot of energy to move off track.”
Imagine applying to college without family or academic guidance? It feels overwhelming. But at least eight people we spoke to told us that they know of or have met some young people in the area who not only lack support but face outright discouragement from their parents; at least three other people also alluded to this theme. Speaking from range of different locations and backgrounds, they said explicitly that it’s not uncommon for parents to squash any inkling of pursuing a higher a degree with questions like “You think you’re better than us?” or “What was wrong with the life we gave you?”
You think you’re better than us? What was wrong with the life we gave you?
“They use that argument to deflect blame from their own failings,” a different middle-aged Manchester woman said. A member of the high school faculty dubbed it the “fear of bettering their parents.”
We were startled by these comments. In what felt like complete breakdown of the American Dream, the attitude expressed to us fell strictly along class lines, hurting young people with the most to gain from higher education. Though anecdotes from eight people is hardly a large enough sample to prove this is a widespread occurrence, this claim warrants further investigation.
Such divide is particularly noticeable to the teachers we met in Portsmouth, where they say the town’s affluence masks its pockets of poverty. Looking at the public schools’ polished facilities, it would be hard to guess that 30 percent of its students receive free or reduced lunch, according to one of the teachers we met with. She said she sees the difference in self-esteem between the haves and have nots in her classes as early as fifth grade.
“I have students that go vacation to St. John, while others think they’ll never go to New York City, college, or even graduate high school,” she said.
We met a young female student who overcame this kind of hurdle. She entered a community college program 10 years after graduating high school, overcoming doubts in herself. Her first jobs out of high school were at Wal-Mart and a temp agency, where she earned $13 an hour. After getting fired, she learned about New Hampshire’s Work Ready program from an unemployment caseworker, and she decided to enroll despite her doubts. “I did a lot better than expected, and I can’t wait to keep going and see what happens,” she told us.
Many people we spoke with expressed some optimism that the tide is beginning to shift in favor of community college and that people are beginning to realize these institutions hit a sweet spot between cost-effectiveness and job opportunities. “People are starting to understand that they can get a good education for a fraction of the cost [of a four-year degree],” a college employee who focuses on job skills development said. “[Community College] also allows access to people who couldn’t afford college.”
However, it cannot be overstated how afraid people are of student debt. We’ve heard about this distress from multiple people on every one of our five district visits thus far. Young people and their parents are absolutely terrified of crippling student debt, and this fear is having real impacts on their dreams and future job prospects.
And student debt is particularly bad in New Hampshire. The state’s college graduates have the highest average student loan debt in the country at $36,000.10 “Kids come out with debt greater than my first mortgage,” the Portsmouth business leader said.
Education in the state is very expensive. At $16,070 per year, University of New Hampshire’s is the most expensive in-state public tuition in the nation,11 and the state provides less than 10 percent of the university’s funding. Numerous participants blamed the state’s chronic lack of investment in education for the state’s workforce predicament. “It’s a shame,” a non-profit employee said. “We aren’t investing in keeping our workforce here. We should be investing in education.”
“It’s a New Hampshire reality that you are better off coming out with a trade degree than a 4-year degree and $80,000 in debt,” one Manchester woman stated, as the others around the table nodded in agreement.
A young medical assistant faced this harrowing reality before community college helped “turn her life around.” She found herself mired in debt with a psychology degree from the University of New Hampshire, a single mom abandoned by her husband, and living once again with her parents. After her mother encouraged her to look at community college, she enrolled. Now, she’s remarried and just bought a house, which she credits to the advanced manufacturing program that gave her “real skills that translate into real money.”
Often, though, the lightbulb moment isn’t that dramatic. The community college programs administrator told us about one of the programs’ graduates she recruited to talk to a high school class about the six-month degree program he completed. He told them he has a new truck, went on vacation, and still got a paycheck. “The idea [of paid vacation] is foreign to so many of them,” she said.
Devastation in Opioids' Wake
Stirring underneath all these challenges is something else. The opioid epidemic is a profound undercurrent affecting every corner of life in New Hampshire. It is difficult to fully grasp the scope of its economic and social consequences, given the lack of comprehensive data and the stigma and shame around drug use. But nearly every person we spoke to had something to say about New Hampshire’s opioid plight—far more than on any of our other district visits. One didn’t even wait for us to get started before launching into a passionate, angry screed.
We took our seats and hadn’t even asked our first question when a local labor union leader interrupted us. He wanted us to know that the biggest problem in the region is opioids. “It’s stealing a generation,” he said. He said he'd already been to four funerals that year. “It scares the hell out of me. It’s harming [union] membership and community. It’s disgusting.”
It has reached catastrophic proportions—the state ranks No. 2 in the nation for opioid-related deaths per population, second only to West Virginia. Gov. Chris Sununu recently estimated that 15,000 people are out of the workforce due to drugs—able bodies the state can’t afford to lose.12 Manchester is ground zero;13 in September alone, the area had 118 overdoses and 11 deaths.14 Even tony Portsmouth has had at least 40 OD’s this year, and the crisis is hitting the city’s renowned culinary scene particularly hard—everyone from dishwashers to a famous chef have been swallowed up.
“It’s touched everybody,” the union leader said. “There’s a high standard of living and education [in New Hampshire]. This isn’t Gulfport, Mississippi,” where he previously lived.
It’s a nefarious, furtive problem that cuts across class, geographic, generational, and demographic lines. Though everyone knows about it and many have been personally affected, much of it happens behind closed doors. “We have overdoses downtown, in bathrooms, but not out in public. It’s not in streets,” the firefighter said. “It’s out of sight, out of mind,” a sentiment echoed by a Portsmouth elected official.
It’s out of sight, out of mind.
What we heard about at ground zero is the stuff of nightmares. One person’s niece is an EMT in Manchester and has to make the life or death decision about who gets her limited supply of Narcan, the drug used to revive someone in the grip of an overdose; they don’t always have enough to handle the overdoses each day. Another man said heart surgeons are also having to make similar triage decisions—decisions that should never be asked of anyone—in the emergency room, because there’s only one of them and so many overdoses.
There’s a lot of blame to go around. The union official blames “big pharma” and the government. So does a middle-aged woman from Manchester. “I have dealt with surgery and disease. I have to throw [the painkillers] away. They push it on you,” she said. Others call Massachusetts the “pipeline” for the drugs.
And many point to the addicts. “In New Hampshire, we blame the individual,” another Manchester woman said.
A state representative echoed this in a separate conversation. “A lot of people have chosen drugs, heroin. It’s a real problem here. You can take that path or another,” he said.
“People are OD’ing for the sixth, seventh, or eighth time. EMT’s know their name. Death might be an okay option,” the second Manchester woman said.
Treatment is slow and arbitrary—one of the charity leader’s brothers died of an overdose after 20 attempts in rehab. But he knows someone else who is now clean after 19 rounds of rehab.
People are generally seemed pessimistic things will improve as long as the economic environment stays the same. “I’m not sure this is getting better or will get better if all they have to look forward to is unemployment and dysfunction,” the nonprofit worker said.
The Immigrant Exception
One exception to those affected by the opioid epidemic is the state’s immigrant community, according to the charity workers who deal extensively with that population. And it’s not just drugs. We were told New Hampshire’s small immigration population defy many of the trends we previously described.
They’re striving for a better life for themselves and their children. “You hear about a real difference in the field between immigrant clients and native clients,” a nonprofit leader said. “Immigrants are a joy to work with. They are hungry for help and opportunity.” On the other hand, he said that “many native folks push back on things like budgeting and health [coaching].” He attributes that to “some pride, embarrassment, entitlement, laziness.”
Immigrants are a joy to work with. They are hungry for help and opportunity.
That being said, New Hampshire’s immigrant community is small—only 5.6 percent of the state’s population (vs. the national average of 12.9 percent). While many we spoke to said immigrants are welcome, there were also a few notable stories of open nativist hostility, which they say have increased since Trump was elected.
A Political State
That brings us to politics. New Hampshire is a political state. The State House of Representatives is the third largest English-speaking legislature in the world, and at the local level, the town meeting remains a vibrant tradition.
And of course, every four years, presidential candidates of all stripes descend on the state, hunting for votes in the first primaries. Given the state’s size, it’s easy to meet them in person. “I have met or could have met every recent President,” a Portsmouth firefighter told us. One of the union members echoed this in another conversation, adding Donald Trump is the “creepiest” president he’s met in his lifetime.
As a result, people say they really listen to the candidates and make up their minds themselves. “[Campaigns] kind of gets annoying, but also you know where candidates stand on issues,” one of the union workers said.
These institutions and traditions surely contribute to the partisan ambidexterity we described earlier. We witnessed such nuance in our discussions—we frequently came away from conversations unable to guess our participants’ political leanings. There was a devout Catholic who denounced Paul Ryan for his immigration views, blue collar workers who couldn’t care less about NFL players taking the knee, and the union member who opposes the $15 minimum wage.
Even so, NH-01 is not immune from the polarization fracturing the country. It seemed to us New Hampshire has its own version of the “coastal elite.” It’s called Portsmouth. “People think the sea coast runs the state,” the firefighter said.
People think the sea coast runs the state
Portsmouth is seen as a liberal town and an outgrowth of Boston. “Whether you are for Hillary or Bernie, you’ll do well here,” a business leader said. And the people we spoke to felt a lot of pride in the liberal values of their community, which factored into their decision to live there. “I like my bubble,” one of the Portsmouth teachers joked.
The people in other places, on the other hand, kept their cards a little closer to their chests. It’s worth noting, however that Stafford County, which encompasses towns just north of Portsmouth up to Lake Winnipesaukee, is the only county in NH-01 to vote for Hillary; the rest of the counties went for Trump by margins ranging from 5 to 16 percentage points. Despite those numbers, every single person we spoke to directly or indirectly knocked Donald Trump, though that didn’t necessarily indicate their party affiliation.
One of the union members described his northern town as “politically where I like to be. It tends to be Democratic and invests in the community…but at the same time, it’s not a hippie [place].” He added: “People pay their fair share in the community, but they vote on how it is spent at town meetings.” But he was among the minority in his union; the labor union’s membership is estimated to be 60 percent Republican, according to one member we spoke to. Trumpism is “a doctrine for [hard-core Trump supporters],” the union leader added. “Like good Catholics.” We think he meant that Trump’s most loyal backers view him, if not as infallible, then as someone worthy of their trust and their faith.
One of the Portsmouth teachers described the fault line as “being a critical thinker.” “It’s where people get info— that’s what polarizing,” she explained. “I don’t know if it’s blue collar vs. white collar, it’s where you get your information.”
The political toxicity is evident among the region’s youth, too. One Manchester woman told us that during the 2016 campaign, some high school kids started yelling “go home terrorist” at some local immigrants. Another Manchester woman’s 22-year-old daughter used to be a political junkie, but now she can’t watch the coverage. “It’s sad that [her daughter] can’t stomach it anymore,” she told us.
Using data from the past two presidential elections, Cook Political Report has categorized NH-01 as an “R+2” district, which means it is two points more Republican than the national average (though remember Obama and Clinton both won the national popular vote). Ahead of the 2018 election, the Cook has rated the NH-01 House race as a “Toss Up” district, which means neither party has a measurable advantage. The Democratic and Republican candidates vying for the open Congressional seat there won’t be able to rely on boilerplate partisan talking points to carry them to victory.
Instead, they will need to contend with the pressing anxieties we heard about during our six days of conversations with the district’s constituents. Some of these issues, like the opioid crisis, are a matter of life and death. Others, like education, cost of living, and jobs, are existential matters for peoples’ dreams and sense of opportunity.
The region has a lot going for it, and many are doing well and comfortable. Still, we came away with the sense that a middle-class life for many living in NH-01 feels very precarious.
New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority’s Housing Market Update, November 2017.