The Continued Thinning of Rural Iowa
By Dave Swenson
I study all economies, but most particularly I pay attention to rural areas. Over the decades, I have witnessed the transformation of dozens of once vibrant trade centers into hollow shells of their former selves.
I get polar views of rural prospects among those I work with in the field. One perspective will concede the losses and try to plan accordingly. Another refuses to talk about losses and instead assumes things will eventually turn around – that there are changes in the offing leading inexorably to a rural renaissance. They just know it to be so.
One of the strongest predictors of the future for rural areas is their most recent performance. Between 2000 and 2009, Midwest metropolitan areas with cities over 50,000 in population grew by 5.3 percent. Midwest micropolitan counties, those with city populations from 10,000 to 49,999 grew by less than one percent. You know where this is heading.
Populations declined by 3.2 percent for the remaining counties in this twelve-state region. The counties with small cities, those under 10,000, declined by 5.4 percent, and the smallest and most rural counties declined by 7.7 percent.
The numbers are worse in Iowa. Its counties with small cities declined by 8.1 percent, and its most rural counties, those without a town bigger than 2,500, shrank by 8.4 percent.
Iowa rural areas have three change components. Domestic outmigration explains the vast majority of the population slide. The other part of the population loss is natural change. Iowa’s most rural counties taken together have more deaths than births – they are in a condition called natural decline.
The last factor is international migration. A lot of ink has been dedicated of late to the changing complexion of rural Iowa due to influxes of Hispanics primarily working in food processing firms. For many, international migration for our rural areas is noticeable if not eyebrow-raising even though the percentages of all minorities among those counties are typically half of the statewide average.
While rural Iowa domestic outmigration and natural declines were offset by a gain of about 4,200 international migrants – about 130 per rural county. International in-migration pales in comparison to domestic out-migration. Iowa’s rural counties had an average of 12 people leave for every international in-migrant. Were it not for the international in-migrants, their population declines would have been much greater.
Small town newspapers and local Chambers of Commerce often herald the return of a former resident to a community as evidence their communities are on the rebound. There is an imbedded belief among many that expatriate Iowans will eventually come home. They will because they cherish their hometown values and have tried the bigger cities and found them lacking. Some will want to raise their children here because we believe we have good rural schools, and, as I’ve heard more and more recently, others will come here to retire (and die?).
A recent Iowa Public Radio program profiled a young family that had moved back to Franklin County. In explaining the move, the area economic development director noted a reasonably stable population – it had only declined by about two percent the last decade – and there was hope, she indicated, that businesses would find their county an attractive place to locate.
A closer look revealed its population ages 25 to 39, that core workforce required for any economy to expand, had declined by only 4 percent, somewhat less than the norm for Iowa’s rural counties. A very good sign. But their youth population, those ages 5 to 19, declined by 14 percent, which is the norm. Their current stability is not holding on to the next generation. The long run does not look so promising.
The sad fact for Iowa is that widespread rural redevelopment is not going to happen however much folks may wish otherwise. People moving back to Iowa are disproportionately attracted to the state’s growth centers, mostly its metropolitan places, and not its most rural areas. The small town values they may have cherished and wish to embody have migrated with them to the state’s suburban areas.
Most modern families need access to two reasonably good jobs to sustain them. Families also increasingly demand a good mix of learning and recreational opportunities for their children. All of these factors are accentuated in larger urban areas and increasingly absent from our rural places.
The economic development stars are aligned against our rural areas across the whole Midwest, not just in Iowa. People move to jobs, and jobs go where the people are. However much we want it to be otherwise, rural areas in the Midwest are struggling and will continue to struggle, and there is nothing on the horizon suggesting the patterns of the past three decades will change.
Dave Swenson is a long-time analyst of Iowa political, social, and economic issues. He is a staff research economist at Iowa State University and an extension-to-communities economics educator. He also teaches community and regional planners (those nefarious agents of totalitarian control) how to do economic things in their profession.