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Small town age gap growing

Jeff Caldwell 12/02/2011 @ 1:40pm Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

It's no secret that rural towns in the nation's middle are losing residents. But, it's the age of the residents leaving those small farm towns that could have the biggest, longest-lasting implications to rural America as a whole.

Compared to urban and suburban climes, fewer people between the ages of 20 and 44 live in small towns in the nation's midsection. Twenty-six percent of the population in small towns falls in that age range versus 30% and 35% in the urban (metropolitan) and suburban (micropolitan) areas, according to a study recently examining rural communities in 10 states in the nation's midsection compiled by the Center for Rural Affairs.

"While the rural proportion for this age cohort is equal to the rural proportion of the younger age group, both metropolitan and micropolitan counties significantly increase their share of the population in this age group," according to Jon Bailey of the Center for Rural Affairs. "This is likely due to the migration of young, working age adults to these counties—often from rural areas for jobs and education—and the retention of their residents in this age group. In metropolitan counties of the region nearly two-thirds of the population is less than 45 years of age."

On the other side of the spectrum, middle-U.S. small towns have a higher percentage of residents over age 65, with 19% of the population in that age group compared to 11% in metro areas and 16% in "micropolitan" areas.

"With nearly half the rural population 45 years of age and older, the needs of rural communities of the region and the services required in those communities are significantly different than in the urban areas of the region," according to Bailey.   

So, what are the implications of this demographic shift in rural America? It's both economic and social, according to the Center for Rural Affairs report. First, as the younger residents leave small towns for metro areas, so goes the community and business investment that comes along with a larger young working population.

"As young, likely  more educated people flock to micropolitan and metropolitan counties, investment will flow into those areas to  create jobs and opportunities and to meet the needs of the expanding population. Conversely, such investments are unlikely in rural areas of the region," Bailey's report shows. "Rural communities and public policy must find alternative methods to create rural economic opportunities."

Socially, a higher percentage of older residents puts more strain on services like health care, both due to the fact older residents typically require more services and because those younger residents in small towns -- namely the youngest children -- lose services they would ordinarily have in more populated areas.

"Access to health care, retirement security and the stability of programs tied to senior populations will continue to be critical for large portions of the region’s rural population and economy. In addition, the relatively large rural population of children suggests the need to maintain—or in some cases, enhance—those services and resources targeted to our youngest citizens. Proportionately, all counties of the region are in need of similar children’s services and resources," Bailey says. "However, resource equity is generally not the case in rural areas, and items such as health care and education in rural communities are often wanting."

The population shift underway, Bailey concludes, will likely be one of the biggest challenges for rural America in the coming years. "How rural areas provide these services that are necessary for communities to thrive while simultaneously shrinking in population may be the fundamental question for decades in rural parts of the region," he says.

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