There are newspaper articles and books galore about population decline in rural America. They are misleading. The population of rural America is growing. And, in particular, there is a "brain gain" of young adults.
Ben Winchester looks at rural America and sees a “brain gain.”
For the past several years, Winchester, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality, has been countering the story that rural areas are inexorably losing people (and “brains”).
In fact, Winchester writes, there is strong evidence of a rural “brain gain.”
What Winchester has found is that over the last 20 years there has been an increase in the number of young adults in rural places in Minnesota and, now in this new report, across the Midwest.
The report is titled Continuing the Trend: The Brain Gain of the Newcomers. You can find it here. What follows is a summary of Ben’s report.
Change in rural communities over the past 100 years has been significant. In fact, it could easily be re-termed a restructuring of rural society. Farming as the core rural industry has declined, now involving just six percent of the rural labor force.
School consolidations reduced the number of Minnesota school districts from 432 in 19902 to 337 in 20103 — a decline of 22 percent. Empty storefronts need attention. Churches, hospitals, and more recently post offices, have closed. In many cases, these changes result in a dramatic blow to hometown spirit.
Headlines and book titles proclaim this demise, so that the public conscious has an embedded view of rural areas as in decline. Specifically, there is much hand-wringing about the “brain drain” because young people leave their small hometowns and head to the city to pursue education and careers.
But, Winchester writes, that’s not the whole story. There are lots of people returning to rural communities — a “brain gain.”
A Better Reading of the Data
We too often misread demographic data, Winchester writes, leading to a conclusion that rural America is on a one-way street of decline. That’s not what the Census numbers show at all, however. He explains:
Clearly the United States has become urbanized over the past 100 years.
The relative percentage of those living in rural counties decreased from 26 percent in 1970 to 20 percent in the 2010 Decennial Census. However, framing “rural” change relative to “urban” leads to statistics that lack nuance; these statistics can mislead public understanding of simple concepts. Take, for instance, the apparent decrease in rural population cited above.
In the time period that the six percent decline occurred, some counties that were called “rural” were re-classified as urban. In Minnesota, six counties (Carlton, Dodge, Houston, Isanti, Polk, Wabasha) were reclassified between 1974 and 2003. When rural areas “graduate” to urban status, the urban population gains entire counties in its count, while more remote rural areas lose their most prosperous counties.
With this shift, there is an impact on statistical averages that make rural areas appear more bereft than before the reclassification — from home values to educational levels to household incomes — though actual conditions in the remaining rural areas may have stayed the same.
This statistical dynamic furthers the narrative of decline in rural descriptors. This was most significant during the 1960s and 1970s, when the concentric ring surrounding the Twin Cities metropolitan area swallowed up many formerly rural areas.
A second example of misleading statistics in the rural narrative involves changes in the percentage of the U.S. population living in rural areas. It is true that the relative percentage of those living in rural places has declined. However, the actual number of people living in rural areas increased between 1970 and 2010 from 53.5 million to 59.5 million.
Urban areas grew too, but at a rate faster than rural areas, resulting in a proportional decline of the population living rural. This is not to say that all rural areas experienced gains; but that there must be dynamics at work underneath the surface.
What’s Under the Demographic Surface
Winchester looked at age cohorts and determined if those cohorts gained or lost population over time.
It worked like this: First Winchester counted a group of 20 to 24 year olds in 2000. If nothing changed, one would expect there to be the same number of 30 to 34 year olds ten years later. However, if that cohort increased, then that was evidence of in-migration.
Winchester studied the change in population among age cohorts. And when he did, he found that certain cohorts were, in fact, gaining population in rural areas.
In particular, he was finding a gain in the cohorts from 30 to 49, young adults who had gotten their education and their start in urban areas who were moving to rural communities.
Sure, some counties lost population overall. But they gained population in certain age cohorts, particularly those in the 30s. There wasn’t a brain drain in many rural counties, but a brain gain, Winchester found.
The Upper Minnesota Valley Regional development Commission in Appleton distributed mail surveys to new residents and conducted focus groups. They asked the new residents why they came to rural Minnesota. Employment wasn’t in the top ten reasons.
Instead, people said they came for a “simpler life”; for safety; for affordable housing; for outdoor recreation; and for quality schooling. “In short, the decision to move was based on concerns about quality of life,” Winchester writes. “These findings parallel those found in a similar study in the panhandle of Nebraska.”
Nearly three-quarters moved in with a spouse or partner. Half had children. Nearly half (43 percent) were coming back to communities where they had lived before. This group were community volunteers and 8 out of ten donated to community groups in their new, rural homes.
And, more than two-thirds had a bachelors’ degree or higher. One in five had an associates degree.
This “brain gain” phenomenon of younger adults is a continuing trend. Winchester found increases in the 30-49 age range continued from 2000 to 2010, although not as rapidly as the 1990 to 2000 period. Migration rates have slowed with the recession.
The preference for living in small towns and rural places continues between 2000 and 2010, albeit at a slower pace.
Research shows that internal migration patterns are slowing, impacting both intra- state and interstate patterns. In 2007-2008, the U.S. migration rate was found to be the lowest since World War II. This rate of 11.9 percent is down from “the 1950s, [when] almost one fifth of all Americans changed residence annually.”
External forces explain this decline in mobility. “Mired in housing debt and struggling through the Great Recession, more Americans are choosing to stay put rather than uproot themselves and their families,” according to the Brookings Institution
It would be wrong to paint a glowing picture of rural challenges. However, as communities and community leaders have reviewed the cohort analysis of demographic shifts, they have responded.
Those who have moved to town see themselves in the research, and community leaders begin to see the benefit of attracting and welcoming newcomers. Community leaders have responded with a sense of renewed hope, by requesting, for example, additional research on the motivations of newcomers and the economic opportunity that they bring with them.
While there is no “silver bullet” in rural community development, acknowledging the reality of the brain gain allows rural places to focus on strengths and opportunities – which is the work of any community that is striving for a better future.