Midwest sociologist says ‘rural is changing, not dying’By Tammie Sloup FarmWeek — February 6, 2023
Ben Winchester is hoping to flip the script on the negative narrative surrounding rural communities.
“The narrative we’re using to describe our small towns and rural places is terrible,” said Winchester, rural sociologist for the Center for Community Vitality at the University of Minnesota. As an example, he points to words like “sleepy” and “dying,” which he sees used regularly in mainstream media.
“The implication is no one is doing anything,” he said.
Winchester kicked off the University of Illinois Extension’s Attracting Rural Residents interactive webinar series, co-hosted by Illinois Farm Bureau, Rural Partners, the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, the Association of Illinois Rural and Small Schools and the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council.
During the first webinar on Jan. 17, Winchester walked attendees through misconceptions about rural America and how to change the conversation. The three different webinars – the second was Jan. 31 and the third is scheduled for Feb. 14 – are geared toward community leaders seeking design strategies to recruit rural residents.
Transformations in rural America have been happening since the early 1900s, including:
- Technology reduced the need for farm workers by 20-60%.
- Road and transportation development.
- Educational achievement. (The GI bill afforded an opportunity for rural residents, mostly men, to get a college degree.)
“We went from Little House on the Prairie to not Little House on the Prairie in 10 years,” he said.
During the second half of the century, several more changes led to rural transformations: Main Street restructuring, school consolidations and hospital closings.
It’s easy to think if a small-town grocery or hardware store closes, the town will “die.”
“Rural is changing, not dying,” Winchester said. “Show me all the dead towns; our landscape should be littered with dead towns at this point. …We’re not dead, we’re still here.”
He points to the housing market in rural communities to contradict that narrative.
“I can’t find a home to buy across this country in our small towns and rural places,” he said. “We’re far from dead. In fact, we’re more vibrant and durable than ever.”
So, how can community leaders and rural advocates fight this narrative? Winchester offered several suggestions.
First, watch your language. With more regionalized schools, hospitals and commerce, talk up the region, not just the town.
He also warned to never use population to determine success or failure.
“The rural population hasn’t gone down, it’s gone up. It’s gone up by 11%,” he said. “What’s gone down is the relative percentage of Americans that live in small towns and rural places.”
In 1970, one in four people lived in a rural area, but by 2022, it was one in eight.
So, how can the percentage decrease when the rural population went up?
“The pie got bigger; the pie of people,” Winchester explained. “The population got bigger, and the rural part got bigger, but it didn’t get as big and grow as fast as urban areas did.”
While most Illinois counties lost rural population from 2010 to 2019, 71% gained housing units.
The composition of housing units also is a factor. Today, 30% of rural households are owned by people over the age of 70, while another 45% are Baby Boomers, he said, adding the average household size has decreased by one person.
“There is so much change coming into our rural communities. It’s almost unbelievable, over the next 25 years,” he said.
Other actions to change the narrative include creating vitality through community groups and bridging them, and starting a conversation with kids.
He pointed to the phrase “rural brain drain,” meaning high school graduates leave and don’t return. However, that trend is not uniquely rural, he stressed. Plus, it’s not necessarily a bad thing for graduates to leave their hometown.
“Let the kids go but let them know there’s somewhere to come back to,” he said.
This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and farming news, visit FarmWeekNow.com.