coffee in dwight, illinois
Where you pick up coffee in Dwight, Illinois. (Mural by Steve Connor.) Photo: Jim Frazier

What makes for a prosperous rural community?

The good people at the Southern Rural Development Center brought together nearly 600 people from 14 southern states to discuss the most important features of rural development. They talked, gathered information and came up with a list of factors that lead to the well-being of rural communities.

The top three factors the group named were education and workforce development; economic development; and local leadership. No surprises here. These are all very important issues, and SRDC is working on these features, as it should.

The Yonder, however, was interested in what issues the 600 rural development practitioners thought were least important. Housing was one. Disaster relief was another. And a third feature that nobody named as a top priority was population change and migration.

What's Most Important for Rural Development

SRDC asked rural development specialists in the South’s land grant universities similar questions about what was most important to the economic future of the rural South. These professionals also ranked migration and population change last — behind disaster preparedness, housing or finance. (See chart on left.)

So nobody in the rural South seems to think migration is important. That’s interesting, because, if you look at the latest research on what makes urban regions prosperous, the order would be reversed: Migration and population change are considered the most important ingredients in creating prosperous cities.

How so? Well, up until 1970, the numbers of college-educated adults were evenly spread (relatively) across the United States. After 1970, however, highly educated people began to cluster in particular places. At the same time, the economy shifted and education became more important to city growth. Prosperity wasn’t a function of jobs or resources or factories. The places that grew rich accumulated skilled people. As economist Joe Cortright put it, “One of the strongest predictors of income growth in metropolitan areas over the past decade is the level of education of the local population.” Actually, it was the strongest — and cities are engaged in a daily battle to attract new economic players, as young, college educated people decide where they will live.

The economic result of this agglomeration of talent is widening economic disparities among regions. Cleveland slogs along in a perpetual recession while Austin and Portland (and Steamboat Springs) forge ahead with higher incomes and rising property values.

The cause of economic success is migration and population change. Cortright writes, “Talented young workers are an indicator species of economic vitality.” Unfortunately for rural America, he finds that “young adults are disproportionately concentrated in metropolitan areas, particularly larger metropolitan areas.” Almost 62 percent of all 25 to 34 year olds live in the fifty largest cities.

where would you live

And what about rural areas? Cortright writes, “the paucity of well-educated young adults is particularly apparent in non-metro areas; the college attainment rate of young adults in non-metro areas is just 15 percent, only half of the average for metro areas.” It’s a third of the rate in Austin, Texas.

But there’s some hope. The Segmentation Company asked 25 to 34 year olds where they wanted to live. Those who weren’t married wanted to live in cities, the closer to the center of town the better. But, still, 39 percent said they would consider living in a small town.

Married young adults — and especially those with children — were more likely to say they would consider living in a small town or rural area. (See the chart on this page.) Talented young people are willing to move to rural communities. Not all young adults — not a majority. But plenty of young people would consider living in small towns if small towns were attractive.

And, before you ask, no, this isn’t a question of simply educating your young. We know that the MOST mobile segment of the population consists of highly educated young people. The more years of schooling, the more likely a young person is to move across a county line. You can’t count on “growing your own.”

Hmmmm. So, education is more important than ever to regional economies. Young educated workers are apt to migrate and settle in places where they would enjoy living. Those choices are determining the economic futures of regions across the United States. And a good proportion of young adults say they would be willing to consider living in a small town.

Sounds to us like attention to migration ought to be up there on the list of priorities. Maybe not first. But certainly not last.

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