A region's needs and its potential come, in part, from the age distribution of the people who live there. In the Great Plains and Midwest, rural regions are disproportionately elderly. Now's the time to change public policy.
Rural areas of Great Plains and Midwest are lodged between bookend generations, the youngest and oldest, with a demographic valley in between.
The 2010 Census shows elderly residents (over age 65) are more likely to live in rural counties than are younger adults, yet more than a quarter of the region’s rural population is under the age of 20. These bookend generations generally require the most local services and resources, especially for health care and education.
Even as they need resources to support the very young and elder citizens, rural areas in the Plains and Midwest are continuing to lose population, while smaller cities and metropolitan areas expand. These realities present both immediate and long-term challenges for the Great Plains region. How will rural areas, shrinking in population, provide the services that are necessary for communities to thrive?
The age distribution of any region’s population has significant implications. Using data from the 2012 Census, the Center for Rural Affairs has studied demographic differences among counties – rural, micropolitan and urban – across the Great Plains and western Midwest, with an eye toward understanding and anticipating needs within the region. (The full report and state-by-state data may be found here.)
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average educational attainment level in rural areas is lower than the nationwide average, particularly for post-high school, bachelor degree or higher education. This discrepancy was true for all adult age groups. For example, 21 percent of rural adults ages 25 to 34 had a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 34 percent in cities and suburbs. As educated young adults flock to micropolitan and metropolitan counties, investment will most likely flow into those areas to create jobs and opportunities and to meet the needs of the expanding population. Conversely, such investments are unlikely in rural areas of the region. Rural communities and public policy must find alternative methods to create rural economic opportunities.
At a time when rural development programs should be established to meet these demographic challenges, federal contributions to rural development are plummeting, and have been for years; almost one-third of the USDA Rural Development budget has been cut since 2003. And Congress is considering making even further cuts to already-bare-bones rural development programs. Congress has recently taken away one-third of the funds for the popular Value Added Producer Grant program as well as all the money for the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program. The USDA only uses about 1.7 percent of its budget for rural development, equaling about $40.68 for every rural resident. As Congress debates and writes the new Farm Bill rural development must be seriously funded and constructed to help create jobs and opportunities in rural areas.
Rural communities also have a role to play in helping develop their futures. Much has been written about community foundations and the role they can play in promoting economic development and economic opportunities in rural communities.
Initiatives like Nebraska’s LB 840, which allows communities to impose a small sales tax on themselves for economic development purposes, also allows communities to marshal the resources for what needs to be done in their communities to address economic problems and demographic shifts. Public policy and community investments should not be mutually exclusive; in fact, for rural communities to meet their economic and demographic tests, both are needed.
The chart below outlines each of the county types described above and the distribution of their populations by age group for the region examined (with rural-micropolitan-metropolitan from left to right in each group of bars).
Metropolitan: Any county designated as part of a Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) based on the 2010 Census. Each MSA must have at least one urbanized area of 50,000 or more inhabitants.
Micropolitan: Counties based around a core city or town with a population of 10,000 to 49,999. A micropolitan area may consist of more than one county depending upon economic, social and cultural connections.
Rural: Counties with a population center of less than 10,000 inhabitants and not included in either a metropolitan or micropolitan area.
This chart shows three basic facts related to age distribution in the region:
• For the 0-19 years of age cohort, the three county types are essentially equal. While metropolitan and micropolitan counties will have more children within their borders, the proportion of the population made up of children is roughly the same across all three county types. However, resources for the services necessary for children are often inequitably distributed to rural areas (See, for example, battles over K-12 education aid in many states and the resulting consolidation or closing of rural schools).
• The 20 to 44 years of age cohort of young, working age adults is where rural areas begin to lag behind metropolitan and micropolitan counties. While the proportion for this age cohort is equal to the proportion of the younger age group in rural counties, the share of residents in this age group is significantly higher in both metropolitan and micropolitan counties. This is likely due to the migration of young, working age adults to these counties often from rural areas for jobs and education and the retention of residents in this age group. In metropolitan counties of the region, nearly two-thirds of the population is less than 45 years of age.
• Rural areas are older. Rural areas have a larger proportion of their population in the two oldest age groups (45 years of age and older) than do metropolitan and micropolitan counties. The largest portion of the regional rural county population is the middle age cohort 45 to 64 years of age. It is likely many of these rural residents are the parents of the younger 20 to 44 age cohort who are abandoning rural areas in large numbers.
Both metropolitan and micropolitan counties of the region have significant portions of their population in this age group (ages 45-64), but proportions are slightly lower than in rural counties.
Rural counties of the region have a significantly larger portion of their population 65 years of age and older (19%), especially compared to metropolitan counties of the region (11%). With nearly half the rural population 45 years of age and older, the needs of rural communities of the region and the services required in those communities are significantly different than in the urban areas.
Since the 1980 Census, the Center for Rural Affairs has analyzed Census data for a multi-state region. For the 2010 Census analysis, selected counties in Colorado, Montana, Wisconsin and Wyoming have been added to the examined region to obtain a broader view of the region. The geographic scope of this analysis is shown in the map below.
The relative age of rural residents now requires and will continue to require emphasis on a special set of services. Access to public transportation, health care, retirement security and the stability of programs tied to senior populations will continue to be critical for many rural communities.
In addition, the relatively large rural population of children suggests the need to maintain or, in some cases, enhance those services and resources targeted to our youngest citizens. School funding, pediatric health care services (including the severely resource-deficient rural mental health system), parks and recreation programs and nutrition programs are examples of services and resources targeted to rural children that will be a challenge for rural communities to maintain or enhance.
How rural communities of this region address the economic and public financing challenges presented by these demographics is, in our opinion, one of the defining issues of the near future. How communities and state and local governments provide the services necessary for their youngest and oldest rural citizens with a small working and tax-paying middle will help determine the well-being of the rural parts of the region. Addressing the issue of the “valley population will help determine the future of the rural Great Plains and Midwest.
Jon Bailey is Director of the Rural Research and Analysis Program at the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Nebraska. Jon has undergraduate and law degrees from Creighton University and a Masters in Public Policy from the College of William and Mary.