Monday, August 31, 2015

Migration Matters: The Rural South Sheds People This Century



Southern Population growth 90-2000
In the 1970s, demographers called it the "rural rebound." Rural America had been losing population for most of the century. And then in the 1970s, those trends reversed. It was a "dramatic and surprising shift," according to demographer Ken Johnson. More than 80 percent of the country's rural counties gained population. Rural counties were gaining population faster than the cities, as people abandoned urban regions for the countryside.

The South has benefited more than most regions from the rural rebound. (The Great Plains never rebounded, for example; rural counties there have lost population throughout.) And in the 1990s, a large proportion of the South's rural counties continued to gain population. Nationally, 71 percent of the nation's rural counties gained population in the "˜90s, according to Johnson. In the South, it was closer to nine out of ten. You can see what happened in the '90s in this map (above): Green shows population growth above the national average; brown indicates a population loss from 1990 to 2000.

This century hasn't been as kind to the rural South.


The Yonder presents here some remarkable maps and graphs prepared by the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University. They show that nearly half the rural counties of the South — the rural fields of the vaunted Sunbelt — lost population in the first half of this decade.

Compare the map of population loss at the top of this page, showing change from 1990 to 2000 to what happened between 2000 and 2006, below. Look at the increase of reddish-brown counties, those that lost population. Huge portions of the rural South are simply being abandoned. Meanwhile growth is relegated to a select group of city-regions — Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, DC, Austin/San Antonio, Nashville, Raleigh-Durham:

Southern population growth 2000-06

Dramatic, we'd say. So, in the 1990s, only 14 percent of the counties in the South lost population, as you can see in this next graphic.


Southern Population growth 90-00

In the first six years of this century, however, over 30 percent of southern counties lost population — and in the most rural counties, the rate topped 48 percent. (See pie chart below.)

A few days ago, the Yonder asked if migration was an important factor in economic well-being. In surveys and discussions, SRDC found that economic development practitioners in the South thought migration had relatively little to do with economic well-being of rural counties. Yet, in cities, in-migration, particularly of young, educated workers, is considered the most important feature of a vibrant economy.

The dramatic shift in population away from the rural South over the past several years might cause those in the rural development business to reconsider their judgment. In fact, it ought to cause a wholesale reconsideration of economic development strategies throughout the country. There is a growing regional inequality in the country. Some places are growing richer as they Southern population growth 2000-06collect college graduates and people with skills. Others are falling behind as they fill with those with less schooling and fewer skills.

And that inequality is being driven by migration.


Chicken or egg

It seems that the issue is not whether quality migration into a community is important. It's common sense. It is. But what comes first. Why would an educated motivated person, especially one with a family, move somewhere that has poor schools, limited medical resources, and questionable public safety. Sad to say but some of these southern rural communities raise the same questions that have been around for years in Compton, Bed-Stuy, West Philly, Oakland, NE D.C., East St. Louis, you name it. Different folks, same strokes.

chicken or egg

Kizziah hits it on the head. Which is the reason I wondered why our southern rural development specialists seemed to think migration was unimportant. If you focus on creating attractive communities, then migration ("quality migration," kissiah says rightly) would be your measure of success. The question the rural south (or, more likely, rural places everywhere) is what caused a switched from the '80s and '90s and now? Why has the rural south suddenly started leaking population?

Back to Danville

In answer to the question posed of why the rural south has suddenly started losing population, I head back to Danville, Virginia which is in the grey in the first map and clearly in the red on the second. I say "head back" because I've written about the town earlier on DY, in a comment on June 21. If Danville can possibly be seen as a microcosm of what's going on, well, here's the answer. First the city has been caught for over 25 years in what has seemed to be an inexorable slide downhill economically. A textile and tobacco town, it has been in the opposite of a sweet spot. In 2000, however, its two major corporations still had a presence there. Dan River Mills had its major Schoolfield Mill still running with several thousand employees and Dimon Corporation, the successor to Dibrell Tobacco, had an administrative office building remaining and its relatively affluent employees. They continued to contract after that and today both are 100% gone. Is it possible that this is indicative of the process that has been underway throughout the region. Second, from the 50's to the 70's when the town was a thriving area with its long time citizens plus an influx of many WWII vets , a strong community was developed and roots were put down. Almost everyone stayed put even as things slowed down. They retired and now it's just a demographic fact that they are dying. They are not being replaced, and it is possible that in the most recent years this phenomenon has been peaking. I don't have any statistics but I do have first hand experience here. And third, again without any statistics and much more hypothetically than the first two reasons, it may be that organic growth, or growth from within, has declined at a faster pace in the most recent years. There are two parts to this. With less opportunity for good jobs and the finality that the corporate departures represent, the flight of young people has accelerated. Additionally, while Julie Ardery gave an insightful real life example in her June 21 article of the barriers to worker mobility(basically it's expensive to finance a move from a relatively poor area to an area with more going on and therefore higher costs), more working age adults and their families may have been forced to take the risks associated with leaving. With inward migration limited and the above trends prevailing, Danville's slice of the bigger picture seems clear. The decline in this new century has accelerated. Is it representative of the overall trend? That's a question for others to comment on.

Common sense?

Well, Kizziah, having moved to a very, very red area on the above maps, I can say for a fact that "common sense" is not so common among our elected leaders. Their answer to the population loss? Hog farms. If the commercial farmers and their supporters have their way, we will soon have one million hogs sharing the air, the water and the land of West Kentucky. Concerns about air and water pollution have been brushed aside. The answer on how to dispose of a whole pile of hog waste? Inject it into the soil, of course! Do like the chicken farmers. Right now, there is more than enough chicken poo being injected to fertilize our fields. Add the leavin's of one million hogs and imagine the smell. Those courageous residents fighting corporate hog farming have been shunned and stonewalled. Even showing that property values will decrease by at least 25% within a mile of a hog farm falls on deaf ears. The pigs are comin' and there seems little that can be done. Who in their right mind will move here?