Staff Voices: Responding to the Star Tribune

The narrative of our rural areas can have a major impact on people retention and recruitment efforts. This past Sunday, the Star Tribune published a front-page article titled “Urban-Rural Split in Minnesota Grows Deeper, Wider”. The context of the article is based on the political shifts that happened in the last election cycle in our rural areas. What’s interesting about this article is the language used to describe rural areas which provides the backdrop of the political debate and the exploitation of a supposed “gap” between rural and urban areas. It’s a perfect example of an outdated rural narrative which we discussed extensively last year at our Symposium on Small Towns. Not only does this doom-and-gloom narrative not match the facts, it is hurting our ability to focus on the actual issues in our small towns.

Population decline and the reduction of the number of employees in the agriculture sector are consistently used as (incorrect) examples of doom-and-gloom in rural areas. This article negatively frames the problems of rural areas in Minnesota to “one born of such larger forces as national demographic trends and the decline of farming as a way of life”. However, the national demographic trends show that there are more people living in rural areas than ever before. The population living in rural areas jumped from 53.6 million people in 1970 to 59.5 million people in 2010 (U.S. Census Bureau). In addition, the author incorrectly assumes that since there has been a decline in the number of farmers that there must be a decline in the rural economy. However, farming hasn’t been the predominant industry in rural Minnesota for nearly 40 years. The current rural economy has adapted and diversified to global economic pressures. Manufacturing, health & education services currently make up 30-60% of employment in any given rural county. Farming and related industries employ fewer than 10% of all workers in 90% of MN counties. (Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages).

There are also instances of using anecdata (information which is presented as if it is based on serious research but is in fact based on what someone thinks is true) in order to support the articles claim. In this case, a gentleman living in Renville is describing his community and that description is implied as the trend for all rural areas.

“We see most of our educated people pick up and leave town, because they feel things are going a certain way,” said Hinderks, 32

Data doesn’t support the notion that educated people are leaving our small towns. In fact, data supports the opposite; people aged 18 – 29 years old are leaving but rural areas are experiencing gains of 30 – 49 year olds seeking a low-density lifestyle. And, it is shown that a higher percentage of these families migrating into our small towns have higher education degrees and higher incomes than families already in the community. You can read more about that here. (University of Minnesota | Extension, Center for Community Vitality)

Population decline is frequently used as a basis for supporting overall decline of rural areas, but claims of a “trend” are generally given without context.

“About 1,200 people live in Renville, which sits 100 miles west of Minneapolis. Population here peaked in 1980 at 1,500 and has crept downward ever since.” 

It is true that the city of Renville has gone from 1,500 to 1,200 since 1980. However, it is important to keep population trends in context. Below is a chart of the population for the last 100 years in the city of Renville along with the trend line (in red) for these 110 years. (U.S. Census Bureau)
In context, it seems that the “peak” in 1980 is an outlier and that there is likely an explanation for this decade of substantial growth. Possibly a plant opened up and then closed? However, by only providing population data since 1980, it seems as if the city’s population had been growing since the community was established, peaked, and is now crashing down. Perhaps, a population between 1,000 and 1,300 is right where it needs to be since that is where it has been since 1900.

“Minnesota grew by about a million people between 1990 and 2013 — mostly in the metro area and other population centers. But the 30 rural counties that form a rough “L” along the Iowa and Dakota borders shrank in that time, more than half of them by more than 10 percent. Those are long-term population trends, seemingly impervious to both boom and bust cycles, and projected to continue in coming decades.”

Yes, it is true that counties along the North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa borders (the counties composing the “L” shape in Minnesota) have lost population over the past 40 years. However, population trends have leveled off in the past decade. In addition, it is incorrect to say that population decline is projected to continue. Projections from the State Demographer’s office have many of these counties experiencing population gains over the next 30 years. Their most recent report projects 14 counties in Minnesota to experience population decline, and only 8 of those counties are within the “L” of Minnesota. In addition, the counties projected to see population decline range from -5% (245 people in Big Stone County) to -1% (121 people in Faribault County). A population decline of 5% in the next thirty years, while not good, isn’t a crisis. Lastly, Renville County, where this article takes place, is projected to see a 4% population increase over the next 30 years.
It is also misleading to say that population trends in rural areas are “impervious to both boom and bust cycles”. The farm crisis in the 1980s, which did have a large impact on populations in our small towns, was an important “bust”.

There are also lots of words used in the article to give the reader a “feel” for small town life. Words and phrases such as “sleepy western Minnesota town”, referencing abandoned buildings, and showcasing one person who is standing tall against the winds of decline(!) only adds to the illusion of the state of rural areas. What does a sleepy town look and feel like? Are there no people around? No traffic? Is this bad?

There are many mixed messages talking about rural areas. A quick google search will give you nearly a dozen different articles discussing positive rural issues; low unemployment rate, large number of manufacturing jobs available, and a rural housing shortage. In fact, the same day this article was released, there was this article in the business section of the Star Tribune, “Rural Counties in Minnesota Leading Economic Recovery”. The nine counties listed in this article are all in the “L” (the counties near the Dakotas and Iowa) of Minnesota; the same counties in the urban-rural divide article described as having “flagging fortunes”.

This is not to say that everything is great in rural Minnesota, there are challenges. Rural housing, agricultural policy, poverty, low wages, homelessness, broadband access, and a changing economy are all very important and rural areas must continue to evolve and adapt. Many of these issues, though, are not just rural. To develop solutions we need to deal with the actual problems and not force an outdated narrative.

Written by Kelly Asche, Program Coordinator at the Center for Small Towns

2 thoughts on “Staff Voices: Responding to the Star Tribune

  1. Kelly-
    I would love to inform you on the conversation that Mr. Condon and I had. I assure you I had no intention of sounding doom and gloom about life in Renville. I would love to hear more about how your group could assist us in evolving and adapting. And I apologize if I had any part in hurting your ability to focus on our small town issues.
    Jeremy Hinderks

  2. Hi Jeremy,
    Thank you for your comment. I completely understand that you had no intention of portraying a negative light on rural areas. I would love to speak with you more about the Center for Small Towns and Renville. I will send you an email.

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