Rural that works
Sociologist challenges the notion that rural is dying
STRATFORD — The way rural America tends to be portrayed today, especially in the national media, is not a pretty picture. Consider articles like “Rural America is the New ‘Inner City,'” which appeared in the Wall Street Journal recently.
Other news stories recount the rural “brain drain” and detail how people continue to leave rural America. Some authors claim that many small towns play a role in their own demise. Then there are books like “Hollowing Out of the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America.”
All these narratives point to the slow, agonizing death of the small town. But there’s just one problem –they aren’t the whole story.
“Rural is not dying–get over it,” said Ben Winchester, a rural sociologist who is a senior research fellow with the University of Minnesota Extension Service.
Winchester, the keynote speaker at the “Rural That Works” conference held earlier this fall at Backcountry Winery near Stratford, conceded that many young people leave their rural hometowns after high school or college, never to return. But there’s another side to the conventional story about rural population decline — and it’s one of hope.
Winchester pointed to U.S. Census data showing that a significant number of people migrate to smaller towns in their 30s and 40s — a point in life when they’re primed to add value to communities with their life experiences, entrepreneurial skills and networks.
“This dynamic is a brain gain that often doesn’t get recognized,” he said.
Rural is relative
Winchester doesn’t hesitate to challenge “anecdata”–information that’s presented as if it’s based on research but is only based on what someone thinks is true.
When addressing rural issues, what qualifies as rural? There are multiple definitions. According to the U.S. Census, rural areas comprise open country and settlements with fewer than 2,500 residents. On the flip side, the Office of Management and Budget considers rural areas to have as many as 50,000 residents, since it defines metropolitan regions as broad labor-market areas that include densely-settled urban entities with 50,000 or more people.
“Rural is relative,” he said. “To people in Minneapolis-St. Paul, a community like St. Cloud, Minnesota, (population 67,984) is rural.”
What is much clearer are the reasons why Americans began leaving rural areas decades ago. Rapid changes transformed the nation from 1900 to 1950, from improved roads and transportation networks to higher levels of educational achievement (due in part to the GI Bill for service members and veterans) to the mechanization of agriculture, which reduced the number of farm workers by 40 to 80 percent, Winchester said.
All this meant rural people could find new economic opportunities in urban areas. Starting in the 1950s, these transformations also ushered in an era of school consolidations, Main Street restructuring — including the rise of regional shopping hubs — and the loss of churches, hospitals, businesses and other elements of small-town life.
In many ways, rural America today is a microcosm of globalization.
“Yes, rural is changing,” Winchester said. “While many of these changes impact rural and urban areas alike, they may be more apparent in rural places. Still, rural communities have survived this massive restructuring of social and economic life.”
America’s rural areas today contain 19.3 percent of the U.S. population. That’s about 60 million people, or roughly one in five Americans, according to data from the 2010 U.S. Census. Compare this to 1970, when about one in four Americans lived in rural areas, Winchester noted.
While population trends aren’t high enough to reverse an overall population decline in many rural areas, the data suggest that people at certain points in life seek smaller communities. U.S. Census data show that 44 percent of all households in Iowa moved every five years, Winchester noted.
“When people migrate to rural areas — and statistics show that people age 30 to 59 have been moving to rural communities since the 1970s — they are often looking for a simpler pace of life, safety and security, lower housing costs, less congestion and good schools,” said Winchester, who added that two-thirds of newcomers to small towns didn’t grow up there. “Quality of life is the trump card.”
Rewriting the rural narrative
That’s why it’s time to change the conversation about rural communities. It starts by thinking regionally, said Winchester, who lives in a small Minnesota town with his young family.
“Think how far you go to work, shop, dine out and enjoy recreation. Instead of saying we’re in the middle of nowhere, what if we said we’re living in the middle of everywhere,” he said.
Begin to look at rural areas with a new perspective, and don’t allow negative language to permeate the way rural areas are described. Also, get to know the positive things that enhance the local area, from tourist attractions to volunteer opportunities to local businesses. Then share these stories.
“Help people see themselves making a life in your area,” he said. “Newcomers often look at three to five towns before they choose where they want to live.”
Everyone is on the front lines when it comes to promotional efforts, from real estate agents to residents at the local cafe to clerks at the convenience store.
“When people come to town and ask, ‘What’s there to do around here?,’ you don’t want the No. 1 answer to be, ‘Nothing,'” Winchester said.
Also, the types of non-profits in a local area reflect the spirit of the community. While groups like the Chamber of Commerce, social clubs, church groups and civic groups were popular in the twentieth century, times are changing.
“Rural social life is not dying, but people today tend to be interested in recreation, the environment, arts and culture,” said Winchester, who studies the demand for rural community leadership.
It’s time to change the negative rural narrative and do away with mindsets like “we’ve tried nothing and have run out of ideas,” he said. “There’s a lot of rewriting the rural narrative that needs to be done, because the current narrative is out of the 1950s. The bottom line is that people want to live and move to rural areas for what they are today and will be tomorrow, not what may have been.”