By Rick Skorupski
I am a transplant to South Dakota. I grew up in New Jersey, in outer suburbia, and then spent more than 20 years in the U.S. Navy, traveling the country and the world. Then, in 2004, my wife and I bought a turn-of-the-century farmhouse in the James River Valley area.
This gives me a different way of looking at things than my neighbors and friends, many of whom have lived here all or most of their lives.
One topic where I have a different view is the dominant story line of our region: The population in rural America is declining and there’s nothing we can do about it. I’m told the great “They” have been saying this for decades. Census data and declining rural school populations prove “They” have been right.
Rural America has traditionally been based on farming, and technology advances in farming have been dramatic. One family now farms the acreage that three family farms worked just 50 years ago.
Ag technology has drastically reduced the amount of human labor required to do the same work. Thus, the need for labor in the agricultural community has shrunk and will continue to shrink. That is a dynamic that we all understand, bemoan—and talk to death.
I beg to differ with the folks who say that there is no reversing of this decline in our future. In fact, I believe the shift has already happened.
Initially, it was simply a gut feeling. Things weren’t quite adding up. Although the 2010 census showed a trend of a shrinking rural population, I began to see other things that told a different tale.
As a board member of Grow Spink (an economic development nonprofit corporation) for the past eight years, I noticed things that don’t fit the “shrinking” formula. I started asking myself questions—for example, if our rural towns are shrinking, why do I keep hearing about housing shortages? If the rural towns’ populations were shrinking, there should be plenty of houses for rent and for sale, wouldn’t you think?
Not All Migration is Outmigration
Here’s what we do know: The U.S. population is migrating. People are leaving Rust Belt states and moving to the states with less congestion. This has been happening for quite some time now, as shown by the redistribution of U.S. congressional seats after the 2010 census.
New York and Ohio lost two seats, and Massachusetts, New Jersey, Michigan and Pennsylvania each lost one. Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana and Missouri also each lost a seat. (Iowa initially confused me, but I think there is another dynamic working in Iowa and Missouri that is political and I’ll let that go for now.)
Who gained? Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah and Washington all gained a seat. Florida gained two seats, and Texas is up four.
Locally, the population in South Dakota in that same time period (2000–10) increased by 8 percent or almost 60,000 people. North Dakota’s population jumped 5 percent or
about 30,000. (These numbers do not take into account the recent explosion of population in the Williston area.)
Outmigration from large cities to smaller cities has been going on for several years. People are moving from New York and Los Angeles to places like Omaha, Topeka and Sioux Falls. Recently, many more people are taking an additional step and moving to towns and communities surrounding those cities.
This outmigration has had a positive effect on places like Aberdeen, Bismarck and Huron. I believe this second population shift started in the latter half of the last decade. But do the
facts bear it out?
To start with, the 2010 census is not a snapshot of 2010. The 2010 census is a look at 2000 through 2010. Think about the year 2000. In 1999 we had the millennium bug, remember? All the computers in the world were going to crash on 01/01/00. This is ancient history for most of us, which is exactly my point. In 2000, rural areas had no real cell phone service and no high-speed internet. In fact, other than business, there was hardly anyone on the internet. Fewer than half the homes in the United States had personal computers. GPS for public use was unheard of. The majority of the rural homes still had rooftop TV antennas. Farm technology, however, had already improved considerably, so there were fewer and fewer jobs in rural places. People left, and the population declined.
By the latter part of the decade, the dynamic had shifted, and it’s continued on this track today.
I set out to see what this change was.
Looking For the Trend
I started talking to mayors of small towns. I asked them if they thought their towns were growing or shrinking. Some said they were continuing to lose population, but others said the opposite. Almost all of them said there was little or nothing for sale or rent in town.
Then, I looked at school populations from 2010 through 2012. Surprisingly, the overall school population has grown substantially in the past few years. For example, in the James River Valley, the overall population of K through 12 students has skyrocketed: My homework came up with a net gain of around 2,250 students. Most of those gains went to Aberdeen (up more than 1,800 students) and Huron (up more than 175). But even without those two towns, the total number of students in the James River Valley went up by 220.
That’s not a lot. But my point is this: It didn’t go down.
Next, I called rural postmasters to get their opinions. They told me that many of the postal routes have gained boxes and only a few have declined. Rural Brown County post offices were still losing people, but the consensus among those I talked to indicated this was the impact of severe flooding in 2010 and 2011.
In my area (rural Spink County) the postmasters tended to agree that the shrinking has ended. Some show more patrons, and some are unchanged. None of the postmasters I spoke with said they had a net loss. I also confirmed my housing suspicions as I talked to them. I would ask them something like, “If someone were to come into your Post Office today and ask if there were any houses in town for sale or rent, would you be able to suggest one?”
Most said no. Some had maybe one.
Finally, I called some real estate agents. After all, they’re in the middle of the whole thing. I asked them a few questions about rural housing trends. All of them mentioned a shortage of available housing and an increase in sale prices. One agent said she knew of people who couldn’t take an available job because they couldn’t find suitable family housing.
One of the agents I talked to said although the population is on the increase, we are not doing enough to retain our younger generation. She is seeing young people moving out. Her contention is that there is little for young adults to do in a small town.
Many agents were of the opinion that almost 20 percent of new sales were to people from out of the area. The general consensus of opinion is that the population shift has occurred. The shrinking has stopped, and the growth, though slow, is starting.
So, all in all, my research leads me to believe that my initial gut feeling is right. The days of shrinking rural population is coming to an end, if it isn’t over already. It’s just hard to see a changing trend when we’ve gotten used to the old narrative.
But what has led to the new storyline?
Changing Opportunities, Changing Priorities
I believe, “What technology taketh away, technology giveth.”
More and more people are working from home, and as they do, they realize that “home” can be anywhere. They are moving out from the big cities like Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. They are moving from the crowded areas to areas with less congestion.
Businesses are also seeking to move from the overburden of taxes and regulations to states that are more business friendly. As they move, they bring jobs.
Consider also that the economy is weak on both coasts and very weak in the Deep South. People move from where the economy is poor to where the jobs are. People have started moving from the industrial Rust Belt to areas less crowded. The ability to find a good job and an affordable cost of living gets them looking, the people and quality of that living brings them in.
I believe we are seeing the Dust Bowl days in reverse. The pattern has shifted. I believe that the 2020 census will reflect rural growth, not decline.
Nine years ago, my wife and I left the overcrowded, over-taxed and over-regulated state of New Jersey and moved to rural South Dakota. During our first year, we found that our cell phone reception was almost nonexistent, we had to rely on dial up internet and there were three channels on the television.
Since that first year, advanced technology has become equal with (and in some cases better than) the rest of the nation.
Until the mid-2000s, improvements in technology were part of the reason that rural populations declined. Now that better technology has reached beyond agriculture to make our work and our lives more connected, technology is no longer the villain in our story. It has, in fact, has allowed rural America to become a more and more desirable place to live.
In the rural Dakotas, a change for the better is happening. It’s time for us to believe it.
I am a transplant to South Dakota. I grew up in New Jersey, in outer suburbia, and then spent more than
20 years in the U.S. Navy, traveling the country and the world. Then, in 2004, my wife and I bought a turnof-
the-century farmhouse in the James River Valley area.