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Generations Bookend Rural Great Plains and Midwest

December 20, 2011

by Jon Bailey, Director, Rural Research and Analysis Program, Center for Rural Affairs

A new Center for Rural Affairs report released finds that rural areas in the Great Plains and Midwest continue to lose population and are caught between “bookend generations” – the youngest and the oldest – with a demographic valley in between.

The report, Age Distribution on the Great Plains, is the second in a series of briefs examining data from the 2010 Census.  The analysis covers a 10 state region that includes North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa and selected counties in Colorado, Montana, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

The chart below outlines the age distribution of the region’s population by county type.  Metropolitan counties are those officially designated as part of a Metropolitan Statistical Area; micropolitan counties are based around a core city or town with a population of 10,000 to 49,999; and rural counties are those with a population center of less than 10,000 and not a metropolitan or micropolitan county.

As the chart shows, rural areas of the region hold their own with the youngest population group.  The proportion of each county type of residents 19 and younger is essentially the same.  But as the youngest residents turn 20 and age into their 30s and mid-40s, the prime working years, rural populations compared to urban populations begin to lag.  This is a significant illustration of the lack of economic opportunities in many rural places in the region.  And older population groups are where rural and more urban areas significantly begin to diverge.  Nearly half of the region’s rural population is 45 and older, and nearly one in five rural residents of the region is 65 and older – both figures significantly greater than urban and smaller city areas of the region.

None of this is really news.  Rural areas have been aging and young, working age adults have been moving to cities for decades.  For much of the past century rural America’s greatest export has been its children.  But the age distribution of the region’s population has significant implications for the region both immediately and in the long-term, implications that are growing more serious and more difficult to address as the decades progress.

The relative youth of the urban areas of the region affects the economics of the entire region.  Investment to create economic opportunities is likely to flow into urban areas of the region to capitalize on the youth and education of the population.  Conversely, the aging of rural areas of the region and the relatively large population of the youngest residents means rural areas must focus on a different set of issues that are critical to those “bookend generations” such as health care and education.  This reality is a long-term demographic and policy challenge facing rural areas of the region.  How rural areas provide these services that are necessary for communities to thrive while simultaneously shrinking in population may be the fundamental question for decades in rural parts of the region.

In order to reverse – or at least mitigate – these demographic trends, it is crucial for rural communities and public policy to find new, innovative ways to create rural economic opportunities and revitalize rural economies.

A 2007 Center for Rural Affairs analysis demonstrated that USDA and Congress have severely oversubsidized the biggest and most powerful farms while consistently underinvesting in rural economic development, spending twice as much on subsidizing the 20 largest farms in each of 13 leading farm states as it invested in rural development programs to create economic opportunity for millions of people in thousands of towns in the 20 rural counties with the most out-migration in each respective state (the full report – An Analysis of USDA Farm Program Payments and Rural Development Funding In Low Population Growth Rural Counties, a.k.a. Oversubsidizing and Underinvesting… can be viewed or downloaded at: http://www.cfra.org/node/603).

Federal contributions to rural development have been plummeting for years – almost one-third of the USDA Rural Development budget has been cut since 2003.  And Congress recently made further cuts to already bare-bones rural development programs.  For example, one-quarter of the funds for the popular Value-Added Producer Grants  as well as all the money for the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program was taken away in the most recent agricultural appropriations bill passed by Congress and signed into law.  Yet,  only 1.7 percent of the USDA budget is for rural development, equaling about $40.68 for every rural resident.

The Center for Rural Affairs proposes that instead of continuing the “Brain Drain” trend, a Rural Renewal Initiative should be created in the next farm bill and Congress should commit at least $500 million over five years to a Community Prosperity Fund that the Secretary of Agriculture could spend in existing rural development programs.  New opportunities are arising in broadband, renewable energy, food systems and ecotourism, and this investment could breathe new life and capital into communities suffering population loss.

Morevoer, this investment could be fully paid for by tightening the limits on farm payments received by the largest farmers – a policy the Center for Rural Affairs has advocated for many years.  It could also be paid for by reducing direct farm payments by just 2 percent.  Though $100 million dollars per year is small in the context of farm bill spending, it would represent a significant and much-needed increase for rural development.

Categories: Budget and Appropriations, Farm Bill, Rural Development

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