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Brain Drain or Brain Gain? A New Narrative for Rural America

Photo Credit:  CAFNR, Flickr Creative Commons, https://flic.kr/p/nkNv1a
Photo Credit: CAFNR, Flickr Creative Commons, https://flic.kr/p/nkNv1a

It seems the rural story has already been told. Small towns keep getting smaller. Schools and businesses are closing their doors. Young people are packing their bags for the city.

The loss of youth following graduation, the “brain drain,” dominates how we talk about rural population change. Hollowing Out the Middle describes the emptying of small towns. Fear feeds a narrative about rural areas “dying” or becoming “ghost towns.” 

It is true that most counties – rural and urban alike – lose young people following high school graduation. Yet at the same time, a less recognized migration is occurring, and has been since the 1970s. Many rural counties are experiencing “brain gains” as newcomers age 30-49 move in. This migration is keeping small towns alive and contributing to a new narrative about rural places.

What is influencing brain gain? Research on newcomers points to quality of life as a driving force. Young professionals are looking for simpler schedules, better schools, affordable housing and recreational opportunities for themselves and their families. And, they are escaping the crime, congestion and fast pace of city life.

Surprisingly, jobs aren’t a chief motive. The quality of life factors appear to trump economic factors. However, telecommuting opportunities and the prevalence of rural broadband allows people to move into rural communities and stay employed through distant employers, even when local jobs aren’t plentiful. These trends have helped to diversify the local economic base across rural America.

Newcomers may be getting a better quality of life in small towns, but what do they bring in return? Rural communities can benefit from the unique skills and ideas of new residents. Newbies contribute to civic life—they volunteer, hold leadership positions and donate to charitable organizations. They spend money and start new businesses, aiding local economic development.

Most communities do little to recognize migration patterns or capitalize on them. What can your community do to build on this positive trend?

Join Ben Winchester, research fellow for the University of Minnesota Extension, Center for Community Vitality, for an hour-long CommunityMatters® and Citizen’s Institute on Rural Design™ webinar on rural migration trends and the impacts they have on social and economic opportunity. Learn how communities are responding to these trends and what can be done in your town. Register now.