K.C. Belitz: Rural Americans should be proud

Originally published by Columbus Telegram

Who would like some good news? Anybody tired of constant bickering, hearings, and bad news? Fortunately, we can help. More than 600 of your fellow Nebraskans came together last week to share, learn, and teach the art of community development . . . and it was awesome!

The Nebraska Community Foundation annual training and banquet was Thursday in York. There was great representation from Platte, Butler, Colfax, and Boone counties at the event and those local representatives I talked with found it both educational and inspiring. They came back to our area ready to dig in and get to work building a better future.

Specifically today, I want to share some of what we learned from Ben Winchester, a rural sociologist from the University of Minnesota. He provided the lunch keynote and also did a break-out session during the training.

Ben summarized his premise regarding rural Nebraska into one old Mark Twain quote: “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” He proposed that, given the typical media narrative about rural America, it would be reasonable to assume that rural places were already dead . . . but that just isn’t true.

In fact, Ben provided some facts to back that up. Would you have guessed that rural America population has, in fact, grown by 11 percent since 1970? And 51 percent of Americans say they would prefer to live in a rural setting?

How many times have you heard the phrase “the brain drain” as it relates to Nebraska? I’m going to guess it’s more times than you’ve heard “brain gain.” And yet, did you know that rural places do have a net “brain gain” for people who are 30-49 year-olds? Probably not the message you’ve heard. Well, the crowd heard it loud and clear last week.

Ben shared some of the specifics about these rural newcomers. Thirty-six percent of the newcomers lived there previously, 68 percent have a bachelor’s degree, 67 percent have household incomes over $50,000, and 51 percent have children in household. And one almost universal: Quality of Life is the trump card in their decision. That’s pretty important (and encouraging) learning for towns in greater Nebraska. Because what we all have in rural Nebraska is a ton of high quality of life to offer!

According to Ben’s research, these newcomers are adding a lot to their places. They are:

  • Creating groups, building their community
  • Diversifying the economy
  • Buying/starting businesses, working from home
  • Living in a region, not just in a town
  • More than warm bodies

Ben also shared some fascinating context on housing in our rural places. We all know housing is in short supply across Nebraska, at the same time as we hear about declining population. So, how can that be? As Ben described to us, it’s simple math. Over the past 80 years, average family size in the U.S. has gone from 3.6 to 2.6 people. So that means, with the same number of households in your community there would be 30 percent fewer people. When you consider that, it’s much easier to understand one of the big reasons that housing is a universal challenge in rural Nebraska.

One other fascinating aspect of what’s coming in housing that Ben shared is this: 75 percent of Nebraska’s houses will change owners in the next 20 years. That’s really a staggering number, but certainly represents an opportunity to innovate and improve the current housing situation.

Bottom line, Ben’s data proves that the stereotype of rural America’s demise is, indeed, greatly exaggerated.

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