Running through them all is the narrative of brain drain: the idea that educated people are moving from the countryside to the cities in droves, leaving ageing and poorly resourced ghost towns behind.
Now one sociologist is trying to tell a different story. University of Minnesota’s Ben Winchester has discovered that, while young high school graduates do leave small towns for big cities, others, in their thirties, forties and fifties are making a return.
For policymakers, it represents a chance to revive small-town America, and ensure that rural areas don’t simply become havens for the old. By bringing in younger, working families, rural towns can diversify their economies, helping community life thrive whilst giving their residents a good quality of life. But for it to happen, the towns themselves need to start telling better stories about themselves.
Since the early 20th century, rural life in the US has changed significantly. Agriculture has declined as a mass employer — in part thanks to mechanisation — and, without employment, many moved to cities for work.
“When you close a hardware store in your [rural] hometown, it’s probably your only one”
What’s more, the countryside is getting older — the median age for an adult in rural America is 51, the equivalent in urban areas is 45. College-aged children tend to migrate out of rural areas for cities and there is a net loss of 18- to 25-year-olds, while there are higher proportions of older people.
For Winchester, this is globalisation at work. As places become better connected, industries grow to compete with other places, dragging people to industrial centres. It’s an urban as well as a rural phenomenon, but the effect it has on rural towns is starker.
“When you close a hardware store in your [rural] hometown, it’s probably your only one,” Winchester said, “but if you close a hardware store in a major metropolitan area you’ve got three to five other options.”
This contrast between rural towns’ former and current situations just provides material for the narrative of decline. The stories told about rural America emphasise the closures and the emigration.
But from working on census data Winchester made a surprising discovery. He found that in his own home state of Minnesota, while the younger cohort were leaving small rural towns, people in their thirties, forties and fifties were returning. He looked into the numbers, and discovered that, from the 1970s onwards, almost every Minnesota county has been gaining newcomers aged 30-49.
Surveying Minnesota realtors and the new arrivals themselves, Winchester found that large numbers of these immigrants were professionals, who were moving to smaller towns to improve their quality of life. Thanks to some excellent broadband coverage across the region, people can work from home even if their head office lies far off elsewhere. And, as more people move, the towns bleed into each other, building a network of different occupations and levels of expertise. The new arrivals bring money and children to the area.
It’s not isolated to Minnesota. Winchester’s analysis of census data for the whole nation shows that young professionals are moving to rural towns across the US.
Telling a different story
But this data jars with the popular image of rural states and the Midwest in America. In a famous example, Washington Post reporter Christopher Ingraham described Red Lake Falls in North Western Minnesota as “the absolute worst place to live in America”, based on its cold climate and flat landscape.
It took a visit to the town and meetings with its residents for Ingraham to realise that life there was much better than the data suggests. In the end, he moved his family there, worked from home, and began to enjoy a slower, more community-based life.
“What does it means, when 75% of your housing is going to turn over in the next twenty years?”
Winchester argued that, until rural towns start emphasising their positives, this trend won’t grow, and people won’t stay. “When you’ve got this dominant negative narrative, it is very difficult on both fronts both locally and nationally, to perceive that you can actually succeed in a small town,” he said.
Some are doing it. In Minnesota itself, a local rural development agency is helping towns to rebrand themselves — push the positive aspects which attract people in the first place, but also make it plain that people can make viable careers in the small town.
Nebraska has been learning the same lessons, and is presenting its towns as places for professionals to make their careers. Policy experts have encouraged towns to promote employment opportunities and modern facilities, to show that moving to these places need not require a dramatic lifestyle or career change. Showing that these towns have moved on, are well-connected, well-resourced places, and that, in Winchester’s words, “isn’t your grandpa’s rural anymore.”
The new countryside
It’s important this story starts to be told more widely, and quickly. While more young families and professionals are moving, rural America is dominated by the baby-boomer generation. As that generation starts to pass away, their houses will become available. To prevent towns filled with derelict buildings, rural areas need a new influx of people.
Winchester’s argument is that this new rural demographic is there for the taking, especially as competition for housing increases in some of America’s heavyweight economic cities. The towns just need to reach out and grab it. “That’s it for me,” he said. “Getting communities to think about what does it means, when 75% of your housing is going to turn over in the next twenty years? How welcoming is your community and what can you do locally to help take advantage of this?” — Anoush Darabi
(Picture credit: Flickr/J. Stephen Conn)