Saturday, April 19, 2014

Minn. Leaders Say Rural Losing Influence

02/01/2013

MN Population DensityMN Legistlative Coordinating CommissionThis 2001 map shows the state’s population density clustered in the Twin Cities region (the red area). The modest (by national standards) decline in rural population means less political influence for rural counties, a report says.Rural Minnesota has lost influence on the state’s public and private policy decisions, according to a report by a nonprofit research organization.

The report, by the Center for Rural Policy and Development in St. Peter, Minnesota, said there is nearly universal agreement among those who participated in the study that rural voices are losing ground in the state’s policy debates.

The qualitative study was based on about 50 interviews with legislators, media professionals and business, civic and policy leaders. It also included an online questionnaire and a review of media coverage.

The report is reminiscent of comments by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack last year, who said that rural communities are becoming “less and less relevant to the politics of this country” because of shrinking population. 

“Rural Minnesota has lost influence in state affairs as the population declines and ages,” the report’s author, Tom Horner, wrote. “A major concern is that issues of greatest importance to rural Minnesota don’t have a ‘home’ in the public policy arena. There is no state agency dedicated to a comprehensive policy agenda for rural Minnesota; rural legislative caucuses have been inconsistent and not very effective; and the statewide organizations with the greatest influence focus more and more on their attention on the Twin Cities and regional communities.”

Minnesota’s rural population is declining (dropping from about 29 percent of the state in 2000 to about 27 percent in 2010). But that’s still higher than the national rural population, which is 19 percent. Rural advocates from other parts of the United States may be surprised to hear Minnesota leaders talking about rural’s declining influence there, because the state has a tradition of rural advocacy and organizing. 

MN Association of TownshipsThis chart prepared by the Minnesota Association of Townships based on Census data shows the decline in percentage of rural population from 1950 to 2000. In 2010 about 27 percent of the state's population was rural. Nationally, that figure is 19 percent.The report says that conditions in the 11-county Twin Cities region disguise the unique economic and social difficulties occurring in rural parts of the state. “Even the state’s politics are divided by geography,” the report said, noting that urban and rural voters sharply differed in their voting on a state constitutional amendment defining marriage. The 12 largely urban counties that opposed the amendment were enough to overwhelm the voters in 75 other counties who voted for it, the report said.

Participants in the study also say the state needs to think about ways to unite rural and urban communities. Improving the rural economy in Minnesota, for example, would be good for the entire state. “Minnesota leaders need to think of the state as a whole, rather than the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota,” one respondent said. “Each depends on each other for a strong economy.”

Some participants were pessimistic about whether rural constituents could regain political influence in the state, which they said is dominated by politics in the Twin Cities. “With dwindling government investment, the pressure will be immense to make investment where they get the most ‘bang for the buck,’ meaning investment will tend to go toward areas of population density,” one respondent said.

The answer is to create a stronger voice for rural Minnesota, said some. “Many research participants don’t see a single rural Minnesota voice as possible or even desirable. Rural Minnesota should be represented by different advocates. What is missing, according to many, is strategic collaboration -- a coming together of effective organizations to identify and deliver common message and strategies where interests converge.”