A troubling population slip in the American countryside

The Great Recession may have killed hopes of some experts that retiring baby boomers would help stabilize America’s small towns.

Prior to 2010, the total U.S. population living in rural or “non-metro” areas managed to keep ticking up, ever so slightly. That’s partly because of a pattern, dating back decades, of metro-area retirees relocating to less harried places. They often returned to the small towns in which they grew up.

And federal studies predicted that boomers would do the same once they retired, maybe in greater numbers than their parents.

Not so far. In fact, for the first time since the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been tracking population shifts, the overall headcount in non-metro America declined between 2010 and 2012 –– by about 44,000 people nationwide.

And John Cromartie, a geographer for USDA’s Economic Research Service, said the double beating we took in jobs and housing probably kept empty-nesters in the cities from budging.

“We put out a report prior to the recession that showed an uptick in migration into rural and small-town areas among boomers,” Cromartie said. “Now we have to revisit that because the predictions didn’t come true.”

It helps to know that there are different types of non-metro areas, and they’ve seen different trends.

Non-metro areas in some agricultural parts of the country –– including much of Kansas and Missouri –– have experienced population loss for decades. That’s because farmers are fewer in number; corporate agricultural operations are larger.

But other non-metro areas include remote locations with natural amenities, small beach communities, quaint villages and second homes in the country. And that’s where many trend watchers were predicting boomers to head, especially since the Internet allowed more of them to work from home.

“Boomers are poised to significantly increase rural and small-town elderly populations by 2020,” perhaps by 30 percent, according to a 2009 report in the rural economics journal Amber Waves.

Hasn’t happened yet.

Though not growing at the pace of the rest of America, small towns in general don’t appear as doomed as we’ve been hearing the last 70 years.

The population of Overbrook, for example, has climbed every decade since 1950, except for the 1980s. It rebounded in the 1990s with several boomer couples moving in, buying and building homes in which to raise school-aged children.

Small towns nationwide witnessed the same pattern of incoming families that decade, said University of Minnesota research fellow Ben Winchester.

“It’s when the kids hit third, fourth or fifth grade that families tend to come to these little towns,” said Winchester.

His website, Rewriting the Rural Narrative, turns the conventional wisdom of dying small communities on its head.

Until recession struck, he said, “the rural population overall just wasn’t in decline.”

Newborn babies, incoming families and retirees seeking a rural lifestyle managed to outnumber folks dying or relocating to cities. Marginal non-metro growth rates, however, did pale compared to swelling populations within metro areas.

“What has gone down is the percentage of people who choose that small-town way of life,” Winchester said. By some calculations, that’s dropped from about 25 percent in 1980 to 17 percent today.

Young adults are the first to exit small communities. And they do in droves –– a phenomenon that sociologists call the “brain drain.”

Examining data from the Overbrook area, Winchester found that 45 percent of young adults migrate out after high school.

But he noted even more retirees and families of school-aged children migrate in –– in a healthy economy, at least –– leading to what he called a net “brain gain.”

Of course, each small town is different, said Randy Bell, author of more than 300 histories of rural communities.

And each place, he said, faces different problems.

“Some towns are somewhat self-sufficient,” said Bell, of Rich Hill, Mo, “especially where it’s difficult for residents to get to the next bigger shopping areas.”

Those people will patronize their own business districts, provided a Walmart isn’t at the edge of town.

In places such as Overbrook, however, big-box discount stores are just a half-hour drive away.

Good for residents willing to make the trip, Bell said. Not so good for local merchants.

Maybe a tide of retiring boomers could change the calculus, small-town boosters hope.

Overbrook resident Rich Fairchild, 65, made his midlife move from the city in 2000, during a robust economy.

Formerly of Topeka, he and wife Carolyn fell in love with property that included a 50-acre lake.

“Came out and caught a big bass,” said Fairchild, “and that pretty well sealed it.”

He hopes to die in the dream home they built.