It’s easy, if you live in the Delta, to get either hardened to the annual census estimates or depressed by them.
The latest release does nothing to lift the worry and gloom about a region that has been depopulating for decades.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s calculations, nine of Mississippi’s counties have lost more than 10% of their population since 2010. Eight of these, including Leflore County, are in the Delta.
There may be some solace in noting that except for a handful of booming pockets in Mississippi, most counties are experiencing a similar drain. Sixty-two of the state’s 82 counties have lost population over the past eight years, and the state as a whole has an anemic growth rate of six-tenths of 1%.
The numbers fit the narrative that rural America is in decline, that Americans, especially young adults, are steadily gravitating toward urban areas where jobs and recreational opportunities are more plentiful, and that heavily rural states such as Mississippi are going to feel the worst effects of this “brain drain.”
There is a researcher, though, in the Midwest who says that narrative is inaccurate, or at least can be if a community is rightly focused. I listened to him being interviewed a few weeks ago on a public radio program. Maybe I just want to hear what Ben Winchester’s selling, but it’s the best antidote I’ve come across to the grim news the Census Bureau annually provides.
Winchester lives in St. Cloud, Minnesota, a city about the size of Gulfport. He is a senior research fellow with the University of Minnesota’s extension service.
Winchester says the exodus of 18- to 25-year-olds in rural areas is a fact of life, and there’s probably not much that’s going to change that. People of that age are leaving for college or something different from the environment in which they grew up. Once out of the nest, it’s difficult to lure them back anytime soon.
Winchester, though, has documented a reverse phenomenon, not just in Minnesota but in other parts of the country, where people in their 30s and 40s, well-educated and with good work experience, are moving away from cities and into small towns and more rural areas.
There are three main drivers for what he calls this “brain gain” in rural America. Those leaving cities for small towns are primarily looking for a slower pace of life, a lower cost of housing and, especially if they have young children, a place where they feel safe and secure.
Certainly, these people have to have a way to make a living, but apparently there are other things on their mind that are a higher priority than where they might work.
“Even in the top eight reasons, nowhere in there did you find jobs,” Winchester said of surveys taken of these rural transplants in both Minnesota and Nebraska. “So people are moving to rural areas for quality-of-life issues.”
That’s an interesting point, and it questions the conventional wisdom that if Greenwood can just create more jobs, the people will follow.
Anecdotally, we are learning that may not be the case. Companies large and small that are expanding are finding it tough to fill all the jobs that they have open. Some of that reflects on the education level of the existing population, but a lot of it is because of the difficulty of getting people to relocate here.
There is a natural inertia that many people have. They are unlikely to pull up stakes from where they are presently living, leaving behind family and friends, unless they are convinced life is better somewhere else.
Plus, people in rural areas are fine with commuting long distances for a job. Winchester said his research shows that in rural areas, residents operate in a 45-mile radius of their home, “where they shop in one place, they work in another, they play in another.”
The figures for Leflore County’s commuters are a few years old, but they bear out this point. A third of the people who work in Leflore County live somewhere else.
Thus, if gaining population is the goal, the leadership in this community might want to rethink its strategy and put less emphasis on chasing smokestacks and more on creating the environment that will make people choose it as their hub.
We already have two of the things that people, tired of the urban rat race, want: lower cost housing and a slower pace of life. As far as safety and security, some parts of town are rough, but not most.
We need to continue to promote the revitalization of downtown, grow the events this community puts on, and, most of all, create a system of schools, public and private, that families with children see as reasonable options for them.
Create the environment in which people desire to live, and they will find the work, even if it’s doing it from home.
• Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.