Publisher’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series about trying to get more people to live and work in rural America.
The civilization-disrupting COVID-19 pandemic is reshuffling millions of lives, jobs, and economic wealth in rural America, just as it is turning the rest of the country’s realities upside down.
That could mean future population and economic growth for thousands of rural communities seizing the opportunity.
Mark Smither, a strategy expert for Paulsen, a marketing and research firm in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, believes a large-scale rural population shift is in the pipeline.
“What accelerated it,” he says, “was the pandemic, then the technology, then employers said, ‘You can do your work remotely.’ When they opened this door … ”
His confidence comes from a panel study he conducted last summer with Audience Audit, an Arizona-based research group that surveyed Americans coast-to-coast about relocation.
“We saw a lot of news articles about people who moved from the city to the countryside … but I thought they didn’t really get the reason, so we thought we were going to try to clarify,” he said.
His project included online interviews with 326 adults who were either urban residents considering moving to the countryside in the near future, or those who had moved to a rural location since early 2020, changing jobs or employers to join a rural area and 20% said they likely would.
Smither believes he has recognized a new American way of thinking. The survey responses convinced him: “Many of the people who come to rural America from the cities believe that there is a better life in rural America … space.”
A 2019 report by the USDA Economic Research Service on the development of the rural population describes a significant influx of Americans into selected rural areas from 2012 to 2017. It is estimated that 58% of the statewide counties had positive changes in net migration (immigrants minus emigrants) .
“People who move to rural areas prefer permanently more densely populated rural areas with attractive scenic qualities or those close to large cities”, especially those with outdoor leisure facilities, observed the ERS.
Similarly, the Census Bureau’s 2020 census suggests a convergence of rural populations into small towns (including towns of 10,000 to 50,000 residents with adjacent counties) that has increased by 1% overall. Most of the fast-growing micro-businesses are located near large, fast-growing urban areas, but the agency also pointed to net profits of more than 15,000 people in a few smaller cities: Bozeman, Montana; Rexburg, Idaho; Heber, Utah; and Williston, North Dakota, an oil spill town that more than doubled its population during the fracking boom.
Profits were not uniform across rural areas. Agri-Pulses analysis of 2020 census data shows contraction in rural, agriculturally productive Great Plains Counties from Nebraska to North Texas and North Carolina. The rare population growth has been seen in counties with large plant processors or meat packers that have historically relied on immigrants.
But what direction is the rural population now taking in the 2020-2030 decade and in the complex consequences of COVID-19?
If more than 4 million Americans, 3% of the total workforce, volunteer to quit their jobs in a month, as they did in both August and September, rural community advocates may have a chance to incarcerate some of the refugees.
However, rural trend observers say much has to happen before Americans can run into the countryside as Smither expects.
“It really needs the joint leadership of our district officials and other community stakeholders … National District Association (NACo).
Zmuda says high-speed internet services are essential to the economic growth of rural communities. NACo supported the recently passed infrastructure law with 65 billion US dollars for broadband. And at least 10 states are already spending part of the 5.2 billion US dollars from the bailout package last March to expand broadband access.
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In fact, various networks have sprung up to help people train, equip and move, to go to the countryside and work remotely.
Last winter, Greater Bemidji, Minnesota Economic Development began offering its 218 Relocate Incentive Package. It invites people to move to the north Minnesota area code 218 and offers reimbursement of up to $ 2,500 for moving and / or teleworking expenses, as well as teleworking assistance and tools, while also offering the city’s available ” All-Fiber Optic Gigabit Internet Service “flashes most of Beltrami County.
Erin Echternach, GBED’s assistant director, says she is trying to “sell the infrastructure we have here so that people can telework”.
So far, 22 people have accepted Bemidji’s offer and she says, “We don’t believe that this trend in teleworking can be stopped” as she sees “a lot of flexibility in teleworking employers”.
Tim Beddow accepted the 218 relocate deal and moved his wife Maria from Farmington, New Mexico in August. The Minnesota Power analyst says his employer would be unlikely to cover his transition costs for working remotely, so the GBED grant covered a year of his internet service fees, modem, and some other related equipment. Maria has now got a job as a pharmacist in Bemidji.
Bemidji is just one of 40 Telecommuter Forwards! City or city / county combination certified in a statewide campaign by Minnesota’s Office of Broadband Development to encourage teleworking between employers and employees. The city or county must assign at least one employee to the project and resolve to promote “teleworker-friendly policies (to improve) the quality of life of employees … economic innovation and vitality in communities across Minnesota.”
Meanwhile, the Northwest Kansas Economic Innovation Center and S&T Telecommunications Cooperative began sponsoring a telecommunications literacy and remote working training program in 26 counties in northwest Kansas in early 2020.
The Rural & Remote teaching program is designed to attract remote jobs or provide additional training for existing remote jobs, says Scott Stroul. He helps attendees secure the training, internet services, equipment, a suitable job, and other needs to become a successful teleworker.
Stroul says attendees will work towards an online “Work Readiness Certificate” and get the necessary training in computer coding. The program has placed around 25 people in jobs in the past few months, he reports. Some work from home, others in work rooms or shared offices.
Rural & Remote, he says, wants to “help families with good broadband connections at home on the farm … (and) families looking for an extra income to support their farms.”
Next week, the second part of this series will explore how broadband and community colleges are the key to rural rebirth.
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