Something Special Is Happening in Rural America
OPINION | THE NEW YORK TIMES
There is a “brain gain” afoot that suggests a national homecoming to less bustling spaces.
By Sarah Smarsh | Ms. Smarsh is the host of the podcast “The Homecomers” and the author of the memoir “Heartland.”
WICHITA, Kan. — For more than a century following the Industrial Revolution, rural and small-town people left home to pursue survival in commercial meccas. According to the American story, those who thrived in urban centers “made it” — a capitalist triumph for the individual, a damaging loss for the place he left. We often refer to this as “brain drain” from the hinterlands, implying that those who stay lack the merit or ability to “get out.”
But that old notion is getting dusty.
The nation’s most populous cities, the bicoastal pillars of aspiration — New York City and Los Angeles — are experiencing population declines, most likely driven by unaffordability. Other metros are experiencing growth, to be sure, especially in the South and West. But there is an exodus afoot that suggests a national homecoming, across generations, to less bustling spaces. Last year, Gallup found that while roughly 80 percent of us live in urban areas, rural life was the most wished for.
If happiness is what they seek, those folks are onto something. A 2018 study by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reported that in spite of economic and health concerns, most rural Americans are pretty dang happy and hopeful. Forty percent of rural adults said their lives came out better than they expected. A majority said they were better off financially than their parents at the same age and thought their kids would likewise ascend. As for cultural woes, those among them under age 50, as well as people of color, showed notably higher acknowledgment of discrimination and commitment to social progress. All in all, it was a picture not of a dying place but one that is progressing.
The University of Minnesota Extension researcher Ben Winchester has cited a “brain gain” in rural America. Mr. Winchester found that from 2000 to 2010, most rural Minnesota counties gained early-career to midcareer residents with ample socioeconomic assets. A third of them are returning, while the rest are new recruits.
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