In Marion County, we have the unique pleasure to experience both a robust and thriving downtown, while still being a short trip away from smaller communities in the countryside. Very few places offer the opportunity to meld rural and urban quite like Indianapolis.
However, the rural-urban divide in America has become a popular topic of discussion recently. Headlines like “Rural America is the New ‘Inner City’” from the Wall Street Journal feed a narrative that rural America is in an inexorable decline. Population decreases and measures of socio-economic well-being, such as poverty, college attendance, mortality rates, labor participation, and opioid use seem to corroborate this conclusion.
Without a doubt, rural areas face difficult challenges. However, evidence suggests that this narrative of a “rural decline” may be one-sided. Ben Winchester, a Research Fellow at the University of Minnesota Extension has noted that while the relative percentage of Americans living in areas classified as rural has decreased, the rural population actually has increased by 11 percent since 1970. The sprawl of urban areas to include areas formerly designated as “rural” accounts for the relative percentage decrease in population.
Similarly, reports of a “brain drain” occurring in rural parts of the country may also be misleading. According to Winchester’s research on rural Minnesota, there is evidence that this process is actually cyclical. While young people (aged 18-29) leave small towns, adults aged 30-49 are returning or moving to rural areas. More than two-thirds of the new arrivals hold a bachelor’s degree, suggesting a “brain gain” is actually occurring.
Additional research suggests that these rural new arrivals value a simpler pace of life, safety and security, and low housing costs. Towns in rural areas can take advantage of these living preferences by positioning themselves as destinations for working adults and their families. Despite its challenges, rural areas have maintained an environment conducive to entrepreneurship and small business resiliency. The ability to start a personal business and/or to work remotely can encourage people worried about their employment prospects in smaller towns.
In addition, rural towns can form networks of surrounding communities, knowing that each place can offer resources or advantages to the entire region. People may live and work in one town but they shop in another area, and seek recreation in yet another community. Through this approach, rural communities can push back against the pejorative phrase “in the middle of nowhere” and, instead, embrace being “in the middle of everywhere.”
We should be careful not to draw overly broad conclusions from Winchester’s research, given its focus on rural areas in one region of the country. However, it suggests that with the right strategies, rural communities, including those in our region, can offer both economic opportunity and a high standard of living. That makes Marion County an even more wonderful place to live.
Josh Moore is an Indianapolis resident and a Project Consultant at Thomas P. Miller and Associates, a full-service consulting firm specializing workforce, economic and community development. He holds a Master of Arts in Philanthropic Studies from the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.