MORRIS — Rural communities trying to thrive should think about three ways to do it: attracting immigrants, hanging on to retiring baby boomers and appealing to millennials in need of affordable housing.
That was a message Wednesday from Ben Winchester, research fellow for University of Minnesota Extension, at a symposium on small towns that the university’s Morris campus holds each year.
Winchester, a sociologist and keen analyst of demographic changes, for years has battled against the narrative of rural decline. He argues that although the percentage of Americans living in rural areas has been declining — to 19 percent in 2010 — contrary to most people’s notions, the total number of rural Americans has been rising, at least until very recently.
More specifically, he and other researchers have identified a trend that is sometimes masked by overall population trends: A sizable number of people in their 30s and 40s are returning to or moving for the first time to rural areas.
This isn’t always enough to offset overall declines in population, but Winchester argues that amid constant change in a nation of mobile people, rural America is doing just fine, thank you.
“We cannot continue to portray rural success as the exception,” he told an audience of a couple of hundred rural officials, economic development leaders, academics and others. “We are vibrant places that do all this with volunteer help.”
But those that want to stay vibrant should stay abreast of three demographic opportunities, he said.
One is immigration. Any number of communities have seen school enrollments grow and Main Streets prosper and parks fill again with kids with the arrival of immigrants.
A second is to hang on to new retirees, particularly by paying attention to their housing needs.
Rural boomers want townhomes and condos and apartments, just like urban counterparts. If those desires aren’t satisfied, they’ll move elsewhere and take their Social Security payments out of the community. Those federal transfer payments now amount to a fifth of the income in many rural communities, Winchester said, far surpassing the importance of agriculture.