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The Continued Thinning of Rural Iowa


By Dave Swenson 

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.

The outward migration is not founded in fallacy, it is founded in reality. There are those that can live completely full lives in rural areas, but modern economics continue to propel people into urban areas. However much we may wish it to be different or be able to describe an alternate scenario, the labor market's tug is too powerful to overcome. Indeed telecommunications and other modern marvels may make folks feel more connected with the outside world, but that will not eliminate in any way the dis-amenities of rural life. No matter what you have been led to believe, your access to goods, services, health care, and education for children are hindered. Many of our young adults migrate out not because they want to, but because they have to. Our rural economies simply cannot use them. And for many, our state economy can't use them either. It is a paradox, but it is a very measurable and disturbing pattern nonetheless.

Dave Swenson | | 05/18/2010 1:42 PM
A great credit to our outward migration, from what I've seen growing up in and moving back to small town Iowa, is the negative outlook on our own culture we were fed by teachers and parents. I've been told most of my life that if we didn't do well in school we'd have to stay here and work the same jobs our parents did, and our parents told us college was the only ticket to a good life. So what happened? Most people my age left for higher education, few of us really got something out of it, and even fewer returned. It's rediculous how many mid-twenties I know who moved to a college town and now stock shelves there at Wal-Mart or Blockbuster, saying they like the amenities of a larger town and there's no place to work around here. I, however, moved back to this small town and we can't find enough creative and intelligent people to fill our workforce! "So what do you do there for fun?" I ask my estranged childhood cohorts. They reply with an embarrased description of a boring life. What do I do for fun in my rural hometown? Something great every day! Live bands, ethnic food, and travel to the city for a few hours followed by a beautiful drive home to a star-filled sky and breathtaking landscape. I see this outward migration as founded in fallacy. Opportunities abound in areas of small population, especially now that we're increasingly easily connected with the rest of the world. We're trained to feel nothing could be worse, though, and can't shake our paradigms about the location of opportunity.

Ken Kahl | 05/18/2010 10:38 AM
availability of high speed internet will mitigate the costs of rural living greatly. Provision & educati on are what's needed

richard heady | | 05/15/2010 11:13 AM
Even if jobs were to exist in rural areas, one has to look at pay and cost of living. Certainly real estate is cheaper in rural areas, but other than that, so much of what is consumed comes from factories far away, and therefore costs the same as it does for city folks (sometimes more, depending on transportation). I moved to Iowa from Colorado Springs, and my real cost of living went up, because my salary decreased more than my expenses. You really have to want something from what rural Iowa has to offer to make the move. I fear that if oil prices rise in a sustained way, the emptying of rural Iowa will only accelerate, as many currently drive a long way each day to work in our cities and larger towns. Thanks, as always, for a thoughtful piece.

Andrew Bell | | 05/12/2010 1:03 PM
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