Small communities across the United State are facing an epidemic of population loss year after year. Since 1950 nearly half of today’s rural counties have lost more people than they have gained, leaving population levels lower and lower each decade. Communities suffering population decreases are faced with fewer workers, declining revenues, and aging residents.
But amidst these losses, some people decide to return home to the rural communities where they grew up. The question is, ‘why do some people decide to return home, while so many others leave’?’.
A recent study by the USDA Economic Research Service tries to answer this very question by studying young Americans, ages 20 to 30, who had returned to the rural communities where they grew up. Researchers John Cromartie, Christiane von Reichert, and student Ryan Arthun attended high school reunions in rural communities and interviewed the attendees to figure out who was returning home, who was not, and the reasons why. They found that family ties, outdoor recreation opportunities, and participation in school sports for their children were three motivating factors for moving back home into rural communities.
The results of this study and others like it are important to help planners and decision makers in rural areas better understand what qualities make their communities attractive to current and past residents.
Returning residents are likely to create more jobs, slow population loss, and boost human, social, and financial capital. The focus of this research was to examine geographically isolated areas unlikely to attract newcomers and who are dependent on returning migrants such as high school graduates that went to college, joined the military, or moved away for a period of time. The researchers inquired about reasons for people staying, returning later, or not returning at all to their rural communities after high school.
Family played a big part in the decision to move home. Some had family still in the area and were moving back to be closer and some moved back because they wanted to raise their own families in the same community where they grew up. Nearly all the interviewees that returned home had parents still in the area, however if parents no longer lived in the community the allure to move back vanished. In some cases, there were family businesses to take over for aging parents or relatives.
Some preferred the familiarity and slower pace of life in rural communities giving them reason enough to return. The geographical closeness of rural communities means shorter trips to work, shopping, and visiting relatives. Rural communities can offer things that a large city cannot. Opportunities for parents to provide experiences not otherwise found in urban areas was a motivator as well. Some returnees valued outdoor recreation like fishing and hunting.A drawback heard from those not returning home was the fact that moving back would mean lower wages and limited career options. For some this was not something they were willing to give up for the rural lifestyle they grew up in. One interviewee summed it up simply, “You have to want to live here. This must be the kind of lifestyle you want.” This could be a deciding factor when bigger cities can offer greater career advancement and higher salaries for some.
Returning home to rural communities means adding to the population and raising the average education level which are important objectives for many declining areas in the United States. The research shows that the choice to move back to rural communities is often based on social relationships that promote local engagement. Recognized as a right of passage to some, leaving home after high school can be a necessary step for an individual. However, returning home to rural communities can benefit young adults, their families. and the communities themselves.
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