We’ve all read the news, watched the movies, and scrolled through page after page of worried panic about the state of small communities. Everything has been doom and gloom lately, with little room for sun between the clouds. On June 4&5th the Center for Small Towns and a variety of dedicated sponsors will be challenging and rewriting the tired, inaccurate story surrounding small towns. We invite you to join us and stand up to the current popular perception of small town and create a story that truly reflects the state of small towns across the state and country.
Change in rural communities over the past 100 years has been significant, including an almost complete restructuring of rural society. Farming, once a core industry, has declined and now involves only six percent of the rural labor force. Small towns all over the country have been forced to downsize and consolidate, often eliminating local schools, hospitals, churches, and in some cases even post offices. The changes occurring in small towns have dramatically hurt hometown spirit while headlines and book titles proclaim a rural demise. There has been an emphasis on young people leaving small communities, creating the “brain drain” phenomenon often referenced when talking about the decline of small towns. Looking closer though, we see that the doom-and-gloom statistics can be challenged, and examined more closely to see what’s truly going on in our small communities.
While we cannot deny that there are challenges facing small towns, there’s more nuance than we’re seeing in the current dialogue. Over the last 100 years there is no doubt that the US has become urbanized, however the way we frame the issues as a black and white change from rural to urban, leads us to statistics and conversations that lack nuance. When it comes to the ways county lines are drawn, household incomes, and growth rates, there are many ways in which data is not being properly represented, or talked about. While it wouldn’t be right to paint a singular rosy picture of rural challenges, there is a need to dissect demographics and better understand in what ways are rural areas successful and better understand what areas need our help and attention.
Despite the narrative of movement to urban areas, and preference of urban areas, evidence seems to show that small towns and rural areas are a residential preference for large parts of the urban population. Both the Pew Research Center and the Economic Research Service’s data collection indicates a trend towards a desire to live in rural areas. Research with middle and high school age students also indicates a consistent interest in rural areas, helping to nuance the “brain drain” conversation. Migration is a factor that moves in both directions, both migration to rural as well as urban areas. To better address the problem of small town population decrease, we have to better understand exactly what kind of migration is occurring and what it means for the communities it affects.
New economic times require new measures. The demographic challenges facing our rural communities exist, but they must be recast in a more contemporary context that acknowledges a dynamic global economy, highlighting the quality of migration instead of the quantity. The Symposium on Small Towns coming up on June 4&5 at the University of Minnesota, Morris will explore all of these concepts in detail, and with some of the leading minds in rewriting and re-imagining the rural narrative. Like the Symposium on Small Towns on Facebook for more updates! https://www.facebook.com/2014SymposiumOnSmallTowns
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