The Shift: Rural Brain Drain...or Gain?

Last Updated by Heather Benson on

A conversation with Ben Winchester of the University of Minnesota. We discuss his research regarding “rewriting the rural narrative,” the shifting farm economy, the impact of globalization on rural Midwestern towns, and the positive aspects of a diversified economy.

Interview Highlights:

On misconceptions about rural mirgration:

Generally, the literature on rural migration and rural studies tends to focus on who's leaving, and there's a lot of, I would say, stereotypes out there about people, that only the lucky few escape our small town and they're able to get away and succeed in life. What we have found is that while we do and have lost our young people following high school graduation, that there are people 30 to 50, in many places up to 60 years old, moving to rural communities, and they move there for a variety of reasons. Ultimately we find that rural migration is not a one-way street.

We are rife with articles and books and studies looking at the concept of out-migration, and when we first started analyzing this data, looking at the broader age group migration, we found these counter-trends. Again, as academics at the time, we would look to the literature and to the books and see who's written about this. While we've got stacks of studies looking at out-migration and a lot of hand wringing in our small towns about our young kids leaving, there was very little to document this in-migration of people, which number one, has been happening since the '70s, number two, really helps to mitigate the losses of our young people.

As you know, you can lose and gain people and the sign outside of town, when the census data comes out every 10 years and we get a new sign and our population goes from 275 to 265, we're seen as losers, when ultimately most of the time population losses are driven by more young people leaving than middle-aged people moving in. That net result of minus 10 is made up of 40 young people leaving and 30 people that are in their 30s and 40s and 50s moving in.

As you probably know, small numbers in small towns mean big things. You bring in 30 people that are in their 30s and 40s, they're going to make an impact. While on one hand we're losing the high school graduate with very little job experience, very little career path or networks or social or economic capital, on the other hand we're bringing in people in their 30s and 40s, and they tend to be educated. They have had a career. They've maybe met a spouse or a partner and they're bringing kids with them. I think using the term brain drain in our small towns to describe our small town does a real disservice to our towns and to the people who are actually choosing to move to our rural communities.

On what attracts people to move back to small towns:

We did studies. We've done interviews and focus groups and surveys. We asked people, "Why did you make the move?" The top three reasons that people gave were, number one, was a slower pace of life. People wanted to slow down. We came up with a lot of taglines like "life on my time." People want control over their day again. Number two was safety and security, and number three was the low cost of housing.

Surprisingly in Minnesota we found that a job was not necessarily in the top 10. Of course people need to get a job, but we saw many people make sacrifices, where they may take a pay cut when they move from the metro to a small town. But the economies of scale work themselves out because while you're making less, the cost of living is less. I think there's some interesting dynamics in terms of why people are making that choice. Ultimately it's everything but the job, so if we're doing recruitment of new employees in our small towns, we need to find out about that person. We have what I call a warm body syndrome, like, you know, we just need people to fill these jobs.

Ultimately, yes, you can just get any warm body into that job, but what you should be doing is finding new residents for your town. When you do that, you find out that these are people who have interests, who may have kids, who are looking for certain traits in the schools, who are looking for certain things to do in the community, whether it be hunting or fishing or canoeing or whatever it is. This is going to help make a successful recruitment strategy, is when you are encouraging people to move for who they are and not just for the narrow view of their job skills.

On what a small town can do to attract young people back:

I think number one, interview newcomers. When I ask people to raise their hand if they've invited a newcomer over for supper in the past five years, I rarely get hands coming up. We live somewhat, I would say, separated lives. It's not like 1800s here, where everybody lives and works and shops and play in one town. We live in the middle of a region that can be up to two hours wide between where people live and work and shop and play.

What we have found is that these newcomers, they've got a variety of interests, just as much as the people who lived there before have a variety of interests. People have continued to move in, and they're not always looking for this idealized, romanticized nature of what rural is. We have this idea that a small town should have a full main street and a K-12 school and a hospital and a clinic, and the reality is, we don't have those things. We've gone through significant structural changes, but people have still chosen to move to our small towns.

Now, they're not moving to our small towns for pity. They don't feel bad that we had all these structural losses in the past. They're moving there because they see hope in what our small towns are today. It takes work to get out, and number one, find these newcomers. Number two, start asking them, "What were the reasons why you moved here?" Now, what we found in our research is just one-third of the newcomers in your small town had lived there before, which means two-thirds of your newcomers have no previous regular experience in your town. Then it becomes a question of, how are people finding out about things in town? How do they find out about daycare or an electrician?

When you're green to town, it's kind of scary when you make a move to a new place. What can we do to help decrease the anxiety level, I would say, of newcomers, and to help improve their quality of life? While I may be interested in doing certain things for my hobbies and for my interests, I'm not going to project onto others what their interests should be. I think it takes a lot of time to build this culture of respect in a community where you don't make comments, for example, that you're not really from here, unless you've lived here for 40 years. Well, these people have just chosen to bring their family to your town. It shows a great level of disrespect when we make comments like that, and while they're off-handed, they can have a significant impact on the ability for people to feel as though it's their town as well.

On how to engage newcomers within a small town:

I don't think there's ever a bad time to introduce yourself to a newcomer. Honestly, we're in the Northern Plains here where in the winter it's dark in the morning and dark when you get home. You wouldn't even know if a newcomer moved in down the street. I think the more difficult thing is actually finding the newcomers because we live segmented lives in many ways. We tend to only shop at certain times or at certain places and whatnot. It takes work to get out of your comfort zone to find newcomers.

I think we, again, have this warm body syndrome when it comes to our nonprofit groups, too, in terms of like, "Hey, there's a newcomer to town. I'm going to see if they want to sit on the board." Well, that is probably the most ineffective way for community engagement as you'll ever find because ultimately we've got some preference differences. Not only do you just assume that they want to be involved in your group, but you assume that they want to sit on a board. Ultimately on the nonprofit side of things, social life is not dying. In South Dakota, the population went up by, what, 8% from 2000 and 2010, but the number of nonprofits went up by 17%.

On how memories of the past can sometimes get in the way of what is ahead:

We're made up of the past all the time. One time our economy was solely based on agriculture 140 years ago, where today it's much more diversified, thankfully. Health and education services make up the largest sector of rural employment by far. Even manufacturing makes up just under 10% of all employment in rural communities. Same for ag and ag-related industries.

I think there's an idea here of what we were as a basis for where we are, but ultimately where we are is vastly different than where we were, and thankfully so. I would argue that ... Imagine where your town would be if for all the people that have left over the years, if nobody ever moved in. Our towns would've dried up 75 years ago. I mean, it's just natural consequence to think here that there are people moving in. Even in South Dakota, 48% of people move every five years. We're a highly mobile population, this country. At what point can we start to capture them and to include them in our community life?

On the importance of arts and cultural offerings in a small town:

I think it depends upon perspective. Everything is important. Whatever people identify as their interest is important. It may be the arts. It may be recreation. It may be local foods. It may be a lot of different things. I think it's important for us to recognize that me telling people what they should do is not the answer. You have to listen to the people in your town, and to do that, you need to make sure you're asking everybody. Again, when you've got this growth in the nonprofit sector, if all you do is go to the established historical groups, you're missing the new voices because these new people moving in are participating in community life, only it looks different than it used to. 

On what stories we should be telling about small town life in South Dakota:

I think narrative matters. The work I do is under the umbrella of rewriting the rural narrative. Right now, my premise is the narrative we use about rural is based in the '50s and '60s. We're not all farmers out here, and it's not all about people leaving, that we have had growth and people moving in. If the language we use to describe our small town is negative, then the little things that we do that are successful are seen as the exceptions, like, "I can't believe Jane started a business." Well, you know what? The backdrop behind rural is actually quite positive. We've had population growth.

Even in South Dakota, the 207,000 people today live in places that were formally rural areas, and it's not because they turned into a city, it's because so many people wanted to live in small towns and rural places that they become urbanized. I think there has been this interest in living in rural America, especially over the past 45 years or so. This narrative matters. If your narrative is one of doom and groom in your small town, the number one audience for that are your kids. If your kids hear this narrative that there's nothing here, that you need to get out, you need to escape to be successful, then I think you've given them zero reason to come back.

If you have visitors to your town and they hear this negative narrative that is honestly dominated by what we had, what we wish we had, what we could've had, "Oh, if the city council didn't vote against having 3M, we'd have a 3M plant here." Whether or not that's true is beside the fact, but it's part of this narrative in our community a lot of times about what we've had and missed opportunities, where we should be talking about where we're going and where we are today. To do that, we need to ensure a broad representation of a diverse voice.

Listen to the entire audio of this conversation here.