Strategies for Growing the Rural Population

Source: “Rural Population Loss and Strategies for Recovery,” Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond

In a recent article, the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond highlighted strategies for bolstering the population of rural counties in the Fifth Federal Reserve District. Some ideas will prove familiar to readers of Bacon’s Rebellion, such as identifying amenities that will attract retirees and second-home buyers. But the article makes some suggestions we haven’t heard before.

Population growth, or at least population stability, is critical for the economic health of Virginia’s rural counties. A shrinking workforce makes it more difficult to attract outside employers, a shriveling population makes it harder to support health services and retail amenities, and a declining tax base undermines the ability to pay for government functions. Population stagnation and/or decline is a problem across the five states of the 5th district, and Virginia is no exception. (Virginia’s rural counties actually saw a small net in-migration, but that was more than offset by “natural” decrease of deaths exceeding births.)

To my mind, the most fascinating strategy is focusing on people’s personal ties to family, friends and communities. One study used 300 interviews in 21 towns at rural high school reunions to learn why some attended decided to return to the rural community where they grew up.

Most returnees cited family reasons for returning home. Most were too young to need to care for aging parents, but many returnees decided to move back after becoming parents. Another commonly cited family factor among returnees was the desire to help their parents run a family business. That being said, many people who returned had to accept lower wages and dual-earner couples had trouble finding job matches.

Communities seeking to reverse the rural brain drain should focus on bringing home young people who already have sentimental ties to the area. High school reunions may be the most efficient vehicle for tracking down and identifying prospects. (Some entrepreneur stands to create a nice business by identifying a cost-effective way to tap that resource.)

Another strategy is to attract retirees — an approach that I have touted on this blog. The article emphasizes that two criteria are important. It helps to have scenic amenities and, a fact to which I have given insufficient attention, health care services. Retirees are older, which means they have more chronic health issues. They need convenient access to docs and hospitals. If rural communities want to attract retirees, they need to upgrade their healthcare services.

What if a rural county isn’t particularly scenic? The Fed article cites a study that finds that increases in public school quality increase the number of new residents moving in. Similarly, a better linkage between high school students with vocational training would help compensate for the loss of college-bound rural youth.

There are signs that the population loss in rural America has abated. “The rural population decline that started in 2010 eventually turned around and ended with an increase of 33,000 people between 2016 and 2017, driven by a slight increase in migration from urban to rural communities,” the article notes. But that revival has been uneven; some localities still stand to lose population.

It will be interesting to see if the COVID-19 epidemic engenders a back-to-the-country movement. Many Americans may be looking for an alternative to elevators, mass transit, and densely packed apartments. While some people may flee the big city, that doesn’t mean they are ready to move to a small town lacking urban amenities. Smaller metros may be the biggest beneficiaries. Still, the strategies reviewed in the Fed article make it clear that leaders of rural communities need not sit back and wait passively. There are many things they can and should do to spark a rural revival.

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19 responses to “Strategies for Growing the Rural Population

  1. Good LORD! I cannot believe my eyes! Shades of dysfunctional settlement patterns!

    Who was the BR blogger than specialized in settlement patterns ..??

    core confusing words and all that?

    can someone get a link to one of his articles?

    He was not a fan of rural… he was all in for urban density.

    dang..his name is on the tip of my tongue but I cannot get it!

  2. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Chatham, Virginia has seen a number of retirees from up north settle there. They have brought a bit of life back to the old town. The problem is they don’t stay here long enough and they don’t make little people anymore. I don’t know if families fleeing covid would pick a place like Chatham. I do think areas such as Fauquier might see an increase in population due to Covid Flight. I think there might be some lessons planners could draw from by examining the emptying of our Virginia cities back in the 1960s and 1970s.

  3. We might need to differentiate between what I would characterize as “near rural” and “really rural”.

    “Really rural” is not 1-2 hours from a true urban locale.

    It’s far enough out that you really can’t on a practical basis, commute to an urban locale. It’s a LONG trip one way.

    I’ve run into folks in places like Capon Bridge WVa that commute to NoVa it’s actually less than 2 hours away – one way.

    But it’s a totally different way of life there… really, really limited in the amenities that folks who live in urban locales just take for granted – not the least of which is broadband.

    I just don’t see folks who currently live in urban or suburban or exurban places wanting to move to these places where amenities like internet and even cell phone are limited…

    James J Kilpatrick used to live in a place called Scabble. Once you get off of 522 and into the “woods” – it’s got some beautiful farms – some of them cattle… probably some of DCs burgers.

    Most of the homes have porches… you gotta have porches in places like that… and you need binnoculars… bird books, gardens, etc…

    It’s exactly what some want, but not most…

  4. What? No new urbanism? Where is ed r when we need him most? Have the paradigms shifted?

  5. Ed Risse – YES!

  6. And LarrytheG, you are right to shown up these fancy pants now into the country. ‘From St. Albans to my new politically conservative correct rural options!

  7. The chart confirms a pattern I’ve noticed of people moving OUT of VA to NC, it shows that rural NC is gaining population.

  8. Can’t grow rural areas until broadband service improves. Must be dependable, robust and affordable. It won’t get there with a system that counts on for profit folks eventually serving everyone. COVID has made that even more evident. Lack of access to everything in today’s world when you don’t have real internet.

    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      Some places such as the Lake Anna region are attempting to organize Rural Broadband Cooperatives. I believe they operate under the same principles of the electric cooperatives. This sounds like a good idea. At the very least a band aid until something more substantial comes along.

      • James – yes they commute from Sperryville and Scrabble and Culpeper and environs.. I know guys that have done it for most of their career and it’s a principal reason why congestion is so awful in NoVa.

        Funny, you should mention Lake Anna. Yes they want broadband and they want water/sewer… and they have a better shot at broadband because there may be some subsidies available for that but water/sewer is a whole nother issue as water/sewer is pretty much a local cost and not subsidized by tax dollars…totally reliant on whoever hooks up to the system. And in a place like Lake Anna where the houses are far apart – water/sewer would be more expensive than broadband or electricity per month!

        They need a “receiving stream”. The problem is the stream that feeds Lake Anna, the North Anna – that lake’s primary purpose is not homes but the Nuclear Plant and their permit allows them to restrict flow into the North Anna in the summer to 40 cfs. That’s not enough to sustain a traditional wastewater treatment plant – they’d have to go to tertiary treatment – uber expensive.

        So Lake Anna is fatally flawed in two amenities that many resort communities have – until they can figure out an economical way to do it.

        • James Wyatt Whitehead V

          I don’t see water and sewer coming to Lake Anna. Those long range commuters are on the job before the alarm clocks in the suburbs go off. The light in Warrenton for 211 and business 29 is steady busy as early as 4 a.m. That back is long over by 7 a.m. Most want to beat those HOV restrictions. They are on the way home by 2 p.m. to get ahead of evening rush. Their impact on NOVA traffic is minimal.

          • James, do you realize that the HOV is now electronic tolls based on congestion levels?

          • James Wyatt Whitehead V

            Mr. Larry the congestion tolls only apply inside the beltway. That has not happened yet west of Merrifield. But it is coming soon. Those country boys don’t go inside the beltway anyways. They are commuting to jobs just before that inner ring.

      • The electric cooperatives that serve my home in Montgomery county and the family farm in Buckingham both plan to offer broadband. In both cases, they project it will take at least 5 years to reach us. If only we could speed it up.

  9. Wonder how much HGTV has contributed to the exodus to small towns? Laurel MS looks idyllic. Well, until you look at crime stats.

    All of the rehab shows are in outlying areas, Waco, Laurel, Benton.

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