By James M. Decker
If you’ve read along the last couple of weeks, you know I’m ruminating on the concept of the “homecomers” — those who leave rural America but then return — and how we can increase our number of homecomers in our rural West Texas communities (or wherever you’re reading this).
Recently, I read an article in the High Country News, a news outlet covering the Western U.S., about how rural Montana is dealing with its own rural “brain drain” issues. In a piece titled “Why some young professionals settle in small-town Montana,” author Eric Dietrich looked at Montana’s struggles and profiled some of the young professionals who are rural Montana’s homecomers. Dietrich notes that, between 2000 and 2010, rural counties in western Montana saw a net loss of over 8,600 people in the age 15-29 demographic. In that same period, Missoula and Bozeman had a net gain of 20,400 in the same demographic.
Montana has the same problem that we have elsewhere — many in the age 15-29 demographic want to move to the cities (even smaller ones like Missoula and Bozeman) that have a college, that have cultural amenities, that are perceived as more “hip.” In that same 2000-2010 period, rural western Montana had an influx of older adults and retirees that actually kept the population steady. That influx has been good for retail spending and real estate markets in the area. Bringing in older adults is a positive to a rural community and all of us should strive to bring in older adults, especially the ones who have a connection to our community and might have been looking for a way “home” for years.
However, simply replacing young faces with older ones is not the ultimate answer. When you do, school enrollment declines. Young professionals and business owners are lacking. There are fewer families, so fewer people to lead family-oriented activities in church, community, youth sports, and so on. Because there are fewer leaders of activities, there are fewer family activities. The town becomes less appealing to families, both prospective and current residents. The next generation of the town shrinks.
Christiane von Reichert is a professor at the University of Montana who has studied the homecomers and spent a decade doing field research on why families did or did not return to rural Montana. In a 2015 paper published by the USDA entitled “Factors Affecting Former Residents’ Returning to Rural Communities,” von Reichert and her co-authors suggest communities invest in the things that help attract young families. They point specifically to recreation and education, emphasizing school quality. They also point to investment in high-speed internet — if jobs aren’t available in town (yet), then better internet access supports remote work and self employment opportunities. Von Reichert also says “know your clientele” — identify the actual appeal of your small-town life and promote that appeal, but understand that the life isn’t for everyone.
Homecomers aren’t likely to move “back home” to rural Montana or rural Texas in the family stage of life unless “home” is a good place for their kids. What are the schools like? How are the parks, libraries, and youth sports? What summer programs are offered in town when school is not in session? Can the kids do their homework and play games on the town’s internet?
Jobs are important. We can’t grow our communities without offering more jobs to attract people to town. But how do you offer more jobs, or attract the businesses who provide them, without a sufficient labor force? And in a great “chicken or the egg” question, how do you grow the labor force without the jobs? Maybe this is the answer. Maybe our towns should invest in attracting remote/self-employed workers and make it a worthwhile place for their families. And when we do that, a better environment for families will bring more families. More families create a larger labor force, and the jobs will follow.
* * *
James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.