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Kids may leave, but rural Minnesota benefits from 'brain gain' among 30- and 40-somethings

Ben Winchester's research shows many people migrate to smaller towns in their 30s and 40s — when they are best primed to add value to their communities.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Ben Winchester's research shows many people migrate to smaller towns in their 30s and 40s — when they are best primed to add value to their communities.

HANCOCK, Minn. — For Ben Winchester, there is another side to the conventional story about rural population decline — one of hope rather than despair. And, being a numbers guy, he has the statistics to back it up.  
     
Winchester, a research fellow for the University of Minnesota Extension, concedes that many young people leave their rural hometowns after high school or college, never to return — a trend explored in MinnPost's series on rural youth.

     
Yet, he argues, here is what gets lost in the discussion: U.S. Census data showing that many people are migrating to smaller Minnesota towns in their 30s and 40s — a point in life when they are best primed to add value to communities with their life experiences, entrepreneurial skills and networks.
     
"This is one of the dynamics that we see here that really doesn't get recognized. The focus is always on the kids," Winchester said. "That's troubling, when we don't see the full dynamic of what is happening. But it's hard to change the narrative."
     
He's certainly trying.
     
'Brain gain' report
 Winchester, through the university extension's Center for Community Vitality, issued a report in December 2009 showing that in the last decade of the 20th century 61 of Minnesota's 67 rural counties had a net gain of residents 30- to 44-years-old. In other words, more people in that age range lived in those counties in 2000 than lived there in 1990.

Percent change in 35-39 age range:

This map shows that nearly every rural county in Minnesota experienced growth in the 35-39 age range.
This map shows that nearly every rural county in Minnesota experienced growth in the 35-39 age range.

Take Grant County, for instance. The county of roughly 6,000 people in western Minnesota had a net loss of 319 people aged 15 to 29 during the 1990s. In the 30-44 age range, however, the county had a net gain of 239 people, along with a net gain of 100 children 10- to 14-years-old (plausibly the children of some of the newcomers).
     
Indeed, in a nine-county region of western Minnesota, Winchester found that thousands of "newcomers" had migrated between 1990 and 2000, even though the overall population declined. (While an analysis on 2010 Census data is still being conducted, the trend is continuing, though at a slower pace, Winchester said).
     
While the numbers aren't high enough to reverse an overall population decline in many areas, the findings are significant, Winchester said, because they suggest that people at certain points in life are seeking smaller communities. Moreover, these newcomers (or returnees, in many cases) are bringing their children to dwindling school districts.
     
It's a phenomenon Winchester and other demographers are seeing not only in Minnesota but also in other Upper Midwest states. And it's enough of a trend to dent the sky-is-falling 'brain drain' narrative that has taken hold in rural America.

Here's a link to Winchester's report: Brain Gain.

"I think rural areas are as vital as they have ever been, but the headlines are about post offices and churches closing," Winchester said. "Well, things change every day. The challenges are global, and rural areas have been resilient in their ability to adapt."
     
Quality of life
The university's Crookston campus compiled interviews with 53 people who migrated to rural Minnesota towns and found the following top reasons, among others, for their move: a simpler pace of life, less congestion, and good schools.

Ben Winchester: "Once the kids are in first, second, third grade people start looking around, and rural Minnesota seems to be a good fit."
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Ben Winchester: "Once the kids are in first, second, third grade people start looking around, and rural Minnesota seems to be a good fit."

" 'Jobs' wasn't even in the top five," Winchester said. "Quality of life is the trump card here. People are in different paths in their careers, so they make different choices in life. Once the kids are in first, second, third grade people start looking around, and rural Minnesota seems to be a good fit."
     
Winchester, a Winona native, and his wife chose small-town life themselves, and live in Hancock — a hamlet of 750 people about 15 miles northwest of Benson in Swift County — with their 5-month-old son.
     
Winchester knows firsthand the benefits of contemporary, wired small-town life. He has an office in St. Paul and a mailing address at the university's Morris branch, but manages to work from home on many days. He travels a lot through small-town Minnesota, carrying the message of rural change — not rural decline — to county boards, chambers of commerce and other groups concerned about demographic shifts.
     
He is currently working on ways in which small communities can pitch themselves to the broader world, such as through a website clearinghouse on which cities could list data about businesses, home prices and other factors that might interest potential newcomers.
     
"Calling it a 'brain drain' is a disservice to people who are moving back," Winchester said outside the K-12 school in Hancock (which has managed to avoid consolidation), where he spoke with MinnPost. "We're losing 18-year-olds with no experience and life skills, but in return we're getting educated people with job skills and networks.
    
"That's not a bad trade."

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Comments (5)

Mr. Winchester's observations correspond pretty closely to my anectdotal observations over the past 15 years or so, when I've had a cousin return to SW Minnesota from California to raise his kids and multiple classmates reestablish themselves in NE Minnesota at the first opportunity.

The folks who move to rural communities mostly fall into two categories. Looking at demographic data doesn't really tell the story.

Professionals, like doctors, dentists etc, who can practice their profession almost anywhere. They have the flexibility to choose a rural lifestyle if they want. These people, not surprisingly, have higher incomes and more education than the existing population.

The second category is people who move back to their hometown, usually to be closer to family. These folks often don't have a highly successful career elsewhere that would prevent the move. But they still have skills that allow them to stay employed even where job opportunities are limited.

Unfortunately, the assumption that these people bring more to a community than 20- somethings is probably not accurate. People who moved back to a rural community to raise a family do not have a lot of extra time or energy to invest in the broader community. They are looking for security and stability, not creativity and risk.

What's interesting about the report is the use of Grant County as an example. It actually gained population for the first time in decades during the reports study period from 1990-2000. But it resumed its population decline this past decade.

This reflects a broader problem with demographic data in rural areas. With a small population even just one major employer can dramatically change the demographic data for a brief period. Add a new health care facility and the doctors and nurses who come to staff it will create a demographic change. But that doesn't indicate a trend.

I'm 21 and just moved to Madison, WI for a job after college, but am originally from Brandon, MN, a small town of 450 people near Alexandria. Hancock is not too far from my hometown, and my mom used to work in Grant County.

I plan to stay in a city area for a few years or so while I'm establishing my career. Once I have a family though I'd like to move closer to my hometown, and ideally have a job that would allow me to work from home to make that move possible. I'm not a city person by nature, but to get a career established in my field, it's where I need to be for now. I would like to raise my own kids in a rural area as I was.

This might indicate population stability in terms of absolute numbers but I'm not sure it really yields the value of "life experiences, entrepreneurial skills and networks" that Aamot claims.

Rural cities have not proven to be innovators for our state and they cannot provide the tax base needed to fund anything significant. Otherwise, the tax for a Twins Stadium would not have solely gone upon the wealthy in Hennepin County.

People who embrace their childhood homes are not there to change or alter them. Our rural towns abide by Jante Law to preserve their cultures.

More likely 30+ wage earners are using rural areas as commuter towns (without the rail) and that this is actually a sign of impending sprawl upon the central Minnesota counties, who benefit from proximity to three metropolitan areas.

Thanks for the comments. Ross, are you a demographer? You've obviously looked closely at some numbers. It may be true, as you say, that some people in early midlife can't contribute to those small communities because of life's obligations, but Winchester has certainly talked to others who can -- and do.