Is Rural America Dying? Attracting and keeping newcomers

Part 5 of Brain Gain, Rewriting the Rural Narrative by Ben Winchester, U of M

By Marijo Vik


Winchester said, “When we do work more in-depth, we find that certain age groups leave. So when you’ve got a lot of children leaving your small town after high school graduation, and you’ve got anywhere from 30 to 50 percent who leave, that’s not new. It’s happened from the beginning of time.”


“Even in 75 percent of the rural counties that lose people overall, there’s still this brain gain,” Winchester said. “So we’re losing our high school kids with a high school education but the people who move into these communities have careers, life experience and families and we’re gaining. So whether you call it ‘brain drain’ or ‘brain gain,’ it’s basically ‘brain circulation.’ From a social capital perspective, it’s vital that you encourage migration to and not from.”


Nearly every rural county in Minnesota experienced a growth in the 35-44 year old age group. Even in the midst of total population decline, there is growth.


The Pew Research Center did a survey on where people want to live. The conclusions were that 23 percent of people surveyed want to live in the city, 25 percent in the suburbs, 30 percent in small towns and 21 percent in rural areas.


That’s 51 percent who want to move from a city or suburb into small towns and rural areas.


The following information was published by Winchester and the EDA Center, at the University of Minnesota Crookston in a document titled “Regional Recruitment: Strategies to Attract and Retain Newcomers.”


Data have shown that those in the age range of 35 – 45 years are seeking out rural lifestyles and actually bringing education and wealth into the region despite the significant losses from younger demographics leaving for school, which is commonly referred to as the “brain drain.” 


By developing strategies that attract and retain the “brain gain” demographic this effort will further diversify the region with higher skill, higher wage jobs and is likely to increase entrepreneurship and job creation that would fulfill niches in the region that are currently unserved or underserved.


Newcomers indicated that they moved to rural areas because they wanted: 1) a simpler pace of life, 2) safety and security, and 3) low housing costs.


Focus Groups

Focus groups were held in seven Minnesota cities. Newcomer lists were generated and up to 12 newcomers were personally invited to participate. The focus groups were facilitated by Toby Spanier with the University of Minnesota Extension. Audio recordings were made of these conversations and transcribed.


The following topics were discussed in-depth in the sessions:

1. What was important to newcomers in making the decision to migrate to the region?

Typical answers: family, job or employment, financial–cheaper to live, rural values

2. Why was it important?

Typical            answers: Raised in the area, family support system, create memories for children that I have, sick of metro area, enjoy small   town life, education system

3. What were the “pull” and/or “push” factors that influenced them?

a. Push – what drove them away from their previous community?

Typical: Traffic and commute time, crime, cost of living, not feeling at home        

b. Pull – what brought them to their current community?

Typical: Reasonably priced land, school system, friendly community, lower cost of owning           house, job, family, centrally located  community


4. How did they find a particular community?

 Typical answers: Family, internet, job postings, EDA and Chamber

5. How many regions did they consider before choosing?

Typical: Zero to three or four, most didn’t consider other regions, but thought of other towns

6. How many communities did they consider before choosing the one they currently live in?

Typical: Zero to three or four, usually they indicated other community in rural Minnesota roughly the same size or larger


7. Was the community what they expected?

Typical: Yes, nicer than what was expected,  friendlier, knew what to expect


8. Are they currently active in community activities?

Typical: Yes, very active, you can be as active as you want, can be busy every night


9. Do they wish to be active?

Typical: Happy with current involvement and activity. Yes, but current life situations don’t allow the time to be more active example small children

10. What is keeping them here?

Typical: Job, family, money, business, friendly community

11. What might push them away from this location in the future?

Typical: Loss of employment, loss of the amenities the town has for example school, hospital, parks,       etc. Increase in cost of housing, population decline

12. Do you have any final advice to give to local community leaders about recruitment and retention of new residents?

Typical: Create more  job opportunities, recruit new families, keep what we have, put jobs and opportunities on internet, share the stories of success and quality of life, stay creative, put energy into our assets not focusing on what we don’t have, be welcoming, keep the businesses open longer difficult to shop after work, be            proactive with            our amenities