A population ‘bubble’ aids some small towns. Will it burst?

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To read or hear popular media, you might think rural Minnesota is a dinosaur on the brink of extinction. Declining and aging populations, dying industries and deteriorating public schools are familiar companion phrases to “rural,” “small town” and “outstate.”

To be sure, dire conditions can be found in many communities and even whole counties in rural Minnesota. But don’t start chiseling a gravestone for Greater Minnesota yet. Some communities are getting a surprising boost from unexpected new residents.

A researcher at the University of Minnesota-Morris Center for Small Towns has found a population trend that might signal growth in some rural areas.

Population Bubble: A Comment
by Lee Egerstrom, Minnesota 2020

The Winchester-Cantrell studies, like most academic research, point out an obvious need for more study. We don’t yet know all the reasons why people are moving to some small communities and we don’t know what opportunities and amenities are needed to keep them there, helping their adopted communities grow.

But the studies clearly point to a new suburban flight reaching far beyond the boundaries of suburbia.

Earlier research on immigrants and new residents in southwestern Minnesota closely tracked the migration of people seeking work in meat processing plants.

Two of those studies, “To Call It Home,” (1996, Crossings Press), by Minnesota 2020 Senior Fellow Joseph Amato, and “Community of Strangers,” (1999, Crossings Press), by Amato and John Radzilowski, explore sociological consequences of the migration. But both start from the premise that the movement was a classical economic response – in search of jobs – whether or not the new residents eventually moved on or if they sank roots in the community “to call it home.”

The state of Minnesota and our academic institutions need new research to explore this phenomenon spotted by the Center for Small Towns. It appears to be a quest for quality of life and not a response to economic opportunity. A back-to-front type of scholarship is needed to learn what it will take to keep these new residents, how to make them feel at home and what they need to start new enterprises where job openings don’t exist.

In short, state and local planners need to be able to answer that most basic of academic questions: “What the heck is going on out there?”

Comparing 1990 and 2000 Census numbers, rural sociologist Ben Winchester found an increase in the number of 35-to-44-year-olds living in rural areas. “When 1990 Census data say there are 100 25-to-30-year-olds living in a town, you expect 2000 Census data to show 100 35-40 year olds living in the same town,” he said. “But the data is showing us there are more than 100.”

In fact, 70 percent of rural counties in Minnesota gained population between 1990 and 1999 – a trend found elsewhere across the nation. In the 1990s, 2.2 million more Americans moved from urban environments to rural ones than vice versa.

This is happening amid a decline of small farms and an increase of industrial outsourcing that have made the rural economy somewhat fragile. So what is the draw for adults in their prime earning years?

“It’s quality of life,” Winchester said. “These people are taking a pay cut, leaving potential career paths and trading them in for jobs that satisfy them.”

Still, the “rural rebound,” as Winchester calls it, hasn’t been enjoyed by all Greater Minnesota communities. Only 40 percent of Minnesota’s rural counties account for most of the rural in-migration. Southwestern Minnesota, in particular, is seeing an opposite trend.

Winchester said economic overreliance on agriculture holds back growth in some communities. Most farm production no longer generates new jobs. “They say ‘We’re farmers and we’ll always be farmers,’” he said. “Relying on agriculture as a sole contributor to the economy doesn’t allow for growth.”

In many of the 40 percent of rural counties that are growing, increased school district enrollments have, until recently, gone unnoticed by school administrators.

A district’s kindergarten classes may have had 100 students in 1997. By 2001, those 100 kindergartners have become 105 third-graders. “[School officials] are always surprised when I show them the data,” Winchester said. “I ask them how they plan their class sizes. They say, ‘We just assume that a class’s size will be the same, kindergarten through high school.’”

This unexpected population bubble presents an opportunity for rural revitalization that hasn’t always been seized by small communities. Winchester believes the best strategy for building on the rural rebound is to engage and keep the new residents in the community.

The best way to accomplish that goal is through the schools. “I’ve talked to some of these parents who have moved from the metro area to a rural community, and some say they’ve never been asked to participate in PTA or school fund-raisers,” Winchester said.

University of Nebraska demographer Randy Cantrell, formerly at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, has made a similar observation. 2000 Census data showed a rural growth trend parallel to Minnesota’s in the panhandle of Nebraska. Last year, Cantrell and his colleagues surveyed many of these new residents and were surprised by their results.

The Nebraska researchers found that many were fairly mobile and unlikely to remain in their new locations. Most surprisingly, the reason for leaving was rarely jobs, income or housing. Instead, it was a lack of social capital. “They simply don’t feel that they ‘belong’ in their new communities,” Cantrell said.

The future for Minnesota’s invisible immigrants is uncertain. There isn’t enough long-term research to determine if these folks will stay in Greater Minnesota or prove to be as mobile as those in Nebraska.

Regardless, rural school boards, local governments and community development organizations need to develop strategies to keep these educated and trained people in their communities. A big part of that planning should involve community amenities to ensure that the new people don’t move again to someplace that’s a little more hospitable.

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