It seems like a mantra already. In droves, people are fleeing Rural America for the big cities. It was reported that in the first fifteen years of this century the rural population in the state of Illinois alone decreased by over 80,000 people. And that decline was even more for young people.

But such a population shift is more than just a “hollowing out” of rural communities. There are very unfortunate consequences to these people drain such as declining incomes, a lower tax base and lower levels of education for the children.  This often translates into fewer or less qualified teachers and therapists available to serve.

But the pain doesn’t stop there. Rural communities have become accustomed to the annual migration of those high school graduates who are the “best and the brightest”. The loss of such talented youth who could potentially help lift the community out of their doldrums is outright depressing.

So what are the dedicated leaders of these communities to do as they watch the cities that they love suffer this seemingly unstoppable decline? Considerable research was undertaken to answer this perplexing dilemma and their answer may come as a surprise.

A New Strategy to Bolster the Population in Rural America?

A team of researchers from the University of Montana and USDA’s Economic Research Service conducted hundreds of interviews at local high school reunions and came to a surprising conclusion. Arresting rural population loss, and consequently fostering economic development may depend less on retaining the youth after graduation and more on attracting former residents somewhere down the road, even years later.

Why do Former Dwellers Return to Rural America?

In order to maximize the benefits of this strategy, it is important to understand why one-time rural dwellers return to their former homes. When asked, most said that it was their desire to reconnect with their own parents and raise their children in the same environment they, the parents, had been raised in.

Beyond support from family and old friends, many returnees were seeking easy-going environments where they felt uninhibited “to do their own thing”. Also high on the list was the perception that rural communities were more secure and safe for their children. And for others, there were more “natural” concerns such as breathing fresher air or just getting back to nature.

Whatever the particular reason, one thing is clear, rural communities must implement those strategies that will encourage their youth to return. Once this mechanism is in place, much can change including raising the quality of education and professional services for children, including therapy by attracting top quality therapists to relocate.

What are Some Strategies to Attract and Retain the Youth to Rural America?

  1. Enable online business opportunities and long-distance learning through quality high-speed internet. High-speed internet is a contemporary staple of life.
  2. Create microbreweries and internet cafes to encourage socialization. These “third spaces” other than the office and the home are a must.
  3. Foster an entrepreneurial culture where it becomes easier for young people to build or own their business.
  4. Engage the youth in the conversation focused upon change. Value their opinions and give them a place in the local governments and community boards.
  5. Make the youth a focus and priority in marketing campaigns.
  6. Mimic dense urban areas by assuring that the neighborhoods are walkable and create downtown spaces to afford the benefits of the density of urban areas without sacrificing the advantages of the rural landscape. Another strategy to consider revolves around density. Smaller towns can appeal to millennials by maintaining their walkable neighborhoods and traditional downtown spaces—which mimic the benefits of dense urban areas.