An Age ‘Valley’ Confronts the Great Plains

[imgbelt img=young-and-old-hands320.jpg]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.


[imgcontainer left] [img:young-and-old-hands320.jpg] [source]Birgit Sabo

The very young and the elderly make up more of the rural population in the Great Plains than they do in cities and larger towns.

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).

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.