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Take the Long Road Home

As long as there are families, young people will leave home. But we all know that many high school seniors rushing to apply to college this month won't be in the same rush to return after graduation. They've set their sights on high-paying jobs and greener pastures.

"It is what it is," we sadly murmur.

But is this all there is to it? Done deal? Fait accompli?

One third of people surveyed in a 2010 Iowa Farm and Rural Poll say community leaders either don't care about the loss of youth or they ignore it. They say youth are encouraged to leave.

And here's the kicker: A solid 60% agree with this statement: There is really nothing here to retain young families.

Really? Nothing?

If the adults in their lives believe this, what are the chances of Generation Y ever taking a second look into their rearview mirrors as they leave?

The time is ripe for a new marketing campaign. It's natural for young people to leave home to establish their independence and to satisfy their curiosity about the world.

Research shows that two thirds of college graduates, ages 25 to 34, decide where they want to live before they look for a job.

What if we told our kids that after they finish college and live elsewhere for a while, we want them to make every effort to return home?

A new USDA study shows that many counties with high out-migration are generally prosperous, but sparsely populated and less scenic. This out-migration is more lifestyle-driven than jobs-driven.
Some states are offering tax breaks, help in repaying student loans, and grants to college grads. In Ohio, you might qualify for a home down payment if you stay for five years. Maine offers an educational tax credit for staying two years.

Jobs and tax breaks help, but quality-of-life factors also attract young people. They will sacrifice income and access to services for quality of life. In return, they must see rural America as a place where:

  • Their families can grow, reach their goals, and live out their dreams.
  • Neighborly ties and social networks are woven into the rural fabric.
  • Natural resources are valued in safe, clean places.

What else? Technology. The $7 billion in grants and loans authorized for rural broadband in 2009 is a start.

In fact, research at the University of Nebraska indicates people turn to the Internet to explore a potential move. But most community websites don't foster networking. Why not add an alumni Facebook page or a community forum?

Access to the outdoors is a natural asset for rural states like Vermont. These places possess natural beauty, but leaders take great pains to enhance and preserve it. They don't fight bicycle trails.

What better place to grow wholesome food or buy it from neighbors? How about a community garden? Many states now offer programs to supplement CRP payments to farmers who allow hunting and fishing on their land.

Rural schools can be competitive, especially if online AP classes and community college partnerships are encouraged. Harnessing telemedicine will upgrade the health care status quo.
Leaders must continue to address housing shortfalls.

What else can be done?

  • Play up local strengths and assets that appeal to youth. Host community events, showcasing fun runs, music, and food.
  • When young people return, treat them as adults. Give them a voice so they can make a difference and employ the talents and skills they aren't able to use at work.

What about the young people who never left? Are we investing in them? Many attend community colleges and are very creative and entrepreneurial.

Young adults gradually see life is not all about jobs and status. In his book, Thrive, Dan Buettner explores global hot spots of happiness. He found one in Singapore, where tax subsidies encourage adult children to live near their parents. Families gain from this proximity and are happier.

Closer to home, his research reinforces that relationships are key. The happiest Americans socialize several hours daily -- especially with family. Rural America must preserve its neighboring traditions.

Volunteerism, a rural strength, is closely tied to happiness. Farmers who want to instill in their grandkids a sense of who they are and their cherished values shouldn't give up.

Remember, don't build a park or library for families living there now. Build it for the families you want to attract. Maybe one of them will be yours.

Iowa Poll (percent agree or strongly agree)

  • Community leaders don't care about out-migration: 36%
  • Community has ignored out-migration: 32%
  • Youth are encouraged to leave community: 30%

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