The nation’s rural population declined again last year, according to recent Census data, and statistics also show fewer jobs to attract new residents, in a chicken-or-egg dilemma.
The nation’s rural population declined again last year, according to recent Census data, and statistics also show fewer jobs to attract new residents, in a chicken-or-egg dilemma. Does population loss contribute to fewer employers, or does less job opportunity discourage people staying in or moving to small towns?
In downstate Illinois, for example, Fulton County since 1980 lost 18.7 percent of its population, according to the National Association of Counties’ breakdown of the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis’ `Local Area Personal Income and Employment Data, 2015” and Census estimates for 2016. Other counties’ population loss in percentages: Henderson (24.9), Henry (14.8), Knox (17.3), Livingston (11), McDonough (17.1), Mercer (18.3) Peoria (7.4), and Warren (20.6).
Two area counties showed population increases since 1980: Tazewell (+2.7 percent) and Woodford (+17.6)
In the 1980s, America’s trouble spots seemed to be cities, with traffic, crime, costs of living, and slow economic growth since factories and other employers were moving to suburbs. Meanwhile, the country’s smallest counties used to be on an upswing, generating about one-third of all new businesses in the 1990s, according to the bipartisan Economic Innovation Group.
But cities rebounded.
Rural areas didn’t, or couldn’t.
Today — using factors ranging from poverty and teenage births, to deaths due to cancer and heart disease, disability benefits, etc. — rural areas’ attractiveness to residents ranks below cities, suburbs and small metro areas, and steady population declines aren’t helping.
“Taking a long, wide view from even before 1900, the trends for large swatches of rural America and its communities have been challenging and largely debilitating for many and beneficial for a few,” says Timothy Collins, assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs from 2005-2016. “The whole economic system is tilted toward urbanization.”
Collins, now retired, offers three general observations.
“First, the history of rural communities can be viewed in terms of their ability to adapt to mainly urban-driven events that took them out of relative isolation and moved them into regional, national and international economies,” he says. “Global competition is not new, and U.S. agriculture has long been part of the mix.
“Second, the byword for American agriculture has been ‘efficiency’ to increase farm income, compete in global markets, and provide lower-cost food,” he continues. “Widespread mechanization began after the Civil War and intensified in the following decades, reducing the need for farm laborers, and moving farmers toward specialization. Labor-saving devices, not only on farms, but in small-town factories, pushed workers into growing cities.
“Third, much of the time the ‘pull’ factor in cities is powerful,” he adds. “Follow the money and the opportunities and you’ll see where the people are going. Urban economies typically grow faster and offer more employment opportunities.”
Tim Morema and Bill Bishop in a report from the Center for Rural Strategies said, “It’s a problematic trend because it usually means fewer people working, fewer kids in school, fewer people shopping and doing the other things that contribute to the local economy.
“On the other hand, the  decline was the smallest since the trend started,” they added.
Indeed, those same counties’ losses from 2015 were: Fulton (0.4 percent), Henderson (1.8) Henry (0.4), Knox (0.9), Livingston (0.3), McDonough (1), Mercer (0.8), Peoria (0.6), Tazewell (0.3), Warren (0.8) and Woodford (0.2)
Despite such relative good news, Collins isn’t optimistic about promoting the attractions of rural areas.
“I’m unsure if any of the advantages of rural areas are even on the radar of most corporate decision-makers,” he says. “Rural communities in the U.S. have lost their low-wage advantage to global competition. Also, whatever the benefits of rural America — and I believe there are many — they are not enough to offset the benefits of city living, despite their high costs and congestion.
“It takes a different type of person to choose to live in a rural area” continues Collins, who lives in Bushnell. “We like to take it easier and don’t need to be surrounded by all of the people and noise, even if there are great jobs, wonderful restaurants, and tons of cultural activities.
“Consider the loss of Caterpillar in Peoria, a decent-sized city with some good amenities,” he adds. “After years of rumors, the headquarters was finally moved to a Chicago suburb. I don’t see how most rural areas can compete when international cities such as Chicago are in competition with other major global cities. The world’s population is now mainly urban.”
Contact Bill at Bill.Knight@hotmail.com; his twice-weekly columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com