Everything You Know About Rural America is Probably Wrong

When Luke Mahin moved back to Courtland, Kansas — population 285 — after graduating from Fort Hays State University in 2010, he thought he’d be there for a summer job.

But he’s been there ever since.

“A lot of people my age wanted to come back,” said Mahin, now 32. “But they believed inaccurately that there wasn’t a job for them.”

Mahin, currently the director of the Republic County Economic Development Corporation, says he’s “rural by choice.” And since 2010, his work has been focused on changing the narrative for the county.

Photo of Luke Mahin. Rural America pbs rewire
Luke Mahin

“We really want to change that definition of success, that just because you choose to be rural doesn’t mean you’re lesser-than,” he said.

You might think Mahin’s story is rare. You’ve heard the whole schtick: millennials love cities. Small towns are failing because of it.

But most of that is off-mark, says Ben Winchester.

He’s a rural sociologist at the University of Minnesota – Extension.

“The rural population since 1970 has gone up, it hasn’t gone down,” Winchester said. “What we find consistently is that once people hit the 25 to 30 age range, they start looking” for a change from city life.

He’s been studying what he calls rural “brain gain” — the movement of folks in their 30s and 40s into rural areas — for around 20 years.

According to Winchester, the folks who move are educated. They’ve got money to spend and, often, kids.

They’re not moving for agriculture jobs. (It hasn’t been the top employer for quite some time.) Ninety-five percent of rural residents don’t work in that industry at all.

Most are in education or health services; another 15 percent are in manufacturing. And almost every industry that exists in urban America exists in rural towns.

The majority of people who move to rural areas are living there for the first time. Just 15 percent of people who move to rural communities are from those communities originally, Winchester said.

“Just because things have changed doesn’t mean these towns are dying out,” he said.

More young people in rural Kansas

People like Mahin know this. But there were barriers to get that broadcasted to the rest of the state.

Jobs weren’t typically listed online. Neither were housing rentals. Realtor websites were hard to find.

When Mahin moved back to the area, he rented a farmhouse for $150 a month through someone he knew. But he realized it might be much more difficult for new folks to find somewhere to live when they have no connections.

So the Republic County Economic Development Corporation stepped up to list job postings, rentals and homes for sale on its website.

That’s important, since the county’s workforce has only continued to increase. So have the folks living in the county and working outside of it, and vice versa.

Young people are drawn by things like more affordable housing, proximity to family and a rural incentive program that will pay college grads $15,000 toward student loans over 5 years to live in a “rural opportunity zone.”

Between 2010 and 2016, the Republic County saw a nearly 40 percent increase in 30- to 34-year-olds, and a 30 percent increase in 20- to 24-year-olds, a group that had previously been declining.

Listening to the community

Christy Hopkins, 36, grew up on a family farm near Towner, Colorado, a town of just 22 people that hugs the Colorado-Kansas state line.

She always had an appreciation for rural living. But as a high schooler, she wanted to leave Towner and never come back.

Photo of Christy Hopkins. Rural America pbs rewire
Christy Hopkins

It wasn’t until a six-hour drive home from Winfield, Kansas, near Wichita — where she’d been attending Southwestern College — that her thoughts changed.

“There’s a spot north of Dodge City, and everything opens up and you feel like you’re back on the plains,” she said. “I think that was the time I realized that that place really had a special place in my heart.”

At 22, she was hired as the director of Greeley County Community Development in Tribune, Kansas, just 25 miles from where she grew up.

The community had been talking for a while about how to figure out what’s next for Greeley County. Hopkins’ position was a result of those conversations.

And 15 years later, those conversations are still a key part of her work — figuring out what the community really wants and needs.

For example, the county has a full-time, year-round recreation program that serves both kids and adults. That’s rare in a community of 1,300 people.

“It gives people an opportunity to get out and socialize,” Hopkins said. “Playing summer softball might not sound like much, but it’s really an opportunity for community engagement.”

And, as some small-town movie theaters shutter, Greeley County has a community-owned movie theater the county purchased from its previous owners. It’s operated by a board, run by volunteers and shows a new movie every week.

Hopkins also recently worked on getting new walking trails around the community’s softball and tennis courts.

“We strive to create a community where you can have as full of a life as you like,” she said.

More places to live

Like Republic County, Greeley County had a problem with visibility of housing and job postings.

So the community development association posts those on its website as well, for free.

But visibility wasn’t the only obstacle. Housing availability in the county, and the state, was tightening.

In Greeley County, no new houses were built between 2000 and 2010.

In 2012, the state created a program to incentivize building multi-family rental units and single-family homes in cities and counties with a population fewer than 60,000.

The county stepped up as well.

“We had an action team that really worked hard to understand what the opportunities were around housing,” Hopkins said.

Since then, the county has seen 31 new units built, including four rental housing units.

That “brain gain” that Winchester talked about? Greeley County’s got it too. They’re the least populated county in the state, but they’re 7th in degrees per capita.

They also had a 50-student jump in school enrollment between 2013 and 2014, she said.

Jobs and housing aren’t the only things that draw people. Mahin points out that Courtland, Kansas, doesn’t have grocery store, but it has a thriving arts center.

Another small Kansas town, Lucas, is known for being a local arts hub, once called the “grassroots arts center of Kansas.”

There’s also tons of tourism in rural Kansas, with hugely popular summer festivals that draw thousands each year.

Changing attitudes

Despite all this good news — the new folks moving in, a diversified economy, thriving community — one of the largest obstacles for these communities is resistance from folks who have lived there the longest.

“They name off these things about the past, but what I remind all these people is that the more you talk about the past, the more you turn all these newcomers off,” Winchester said.

He’s currently in the middle of a research project gauging the experiences of newcomers in 20 different rural communities in Minnesota.

“I didn’t move to Hancock because I felt bad they lost their grocery store. Why does that continue to dominate the narrative?”

Winchester wants the narrative in rural communities to be based on where they are, not where they were. Because where they are is a great place to be.

While it might feel like you know everyone in a small town, you don’t always. The newcomers don’t always run in the same circles as the people who have lived in town a long time.

That can lead to some animosity between circles.

Mahin said Courtland is unique in that way. It’s always had a culture of encouraging young folks to take leadership roles, and for older people to pass the baton.

“What I find now in economic development… that doesn’t always happen because some communities only value the ‘locals,’” he said.

For Hopkins, it’s important that younger generations continue to realize that you don’t have to go away to be successful. You can do that right in your hometown.

Her county has even hosted a youth entrepreneurship challenge to encourage young thinkers of the area.

“I think there used to be some perception that if you moved home to your rural community, it was because you couldn’t make it in the world,” Hopkins said. “I think that stereotype has been flipped on its head.”

Gretchen Brown

Gretchen has reported on the criminal justice system in rural Minnesota and covered everything from politics to millennial truck drivers for Wisconsin Public Radio. She is passionate about public media as a public service. She’s also into music and really good coffee. Follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.