Sunday, January 29, 2017

Fewer children, more brain drain

"Brain drain" in the context of the United States is a phenomenon best described as the loss of educated individuals from rural areas, either for career purposes or to obtain higher education unavailable in a small town. Several years ago, an important study on the causes and effects of brain drain was discussed on this blog. In the time since that 2009 study, the problem has certainly not dissipated. Why? I posit that one important factor is the milllenial generation reaching child-rearing age, but instead exercising their choice to forego children in increasingly higher numbers.

A report released recently by the Urban Institute tells us that American women are now reproducing at the slowest rate in U.S. history:
 The decline in twenty-something fertility affects young women across races and ethnicities (figure 1). From 2007 to 2012, Hispanics experienced the largest decline in birth rates, 26 percent (from 1,570 to 1,158), followed by a decline of 14 percent for non-Hispanic blacks (from 1,216 to 1,046) and 11 percent for non-Hispanic whites (from 976 to 866).
 Fewer children means fewer opportunities for rural communities to grow and flourish. Oftentimes, rural communities can count on those former residents--who left the community to "spread their wings" in pursuit of education or career in more urban or suburban areas--to return when it comes time to raise children. There is certainly a recognized idealistic view of rural communities as being "a good place to raise a family." If raising a family is no longer part of the equation, perhaps returning to your roots becomes significantly less appealing as well.

One study by the University of Wisconsin found that young professionals under the age of 40 prioritize safe streets, place for family, and public schools in spots as their first, second, and fourth most important considerations, respectively. These factors take precedence over scenic beauty, a sense of community, and even proximity to friends and family. Those factors are also inherently dependent on a choice to have children; without children, it appears millennials are finding very few persuasive reasons to return.

As a millennial myself, I find it freeing and exhilarating to live in a time of increased reproductive choice and options that challenge the traditional family structure. With that being said, I do often face tough questions from my own relatives and primary school classmates who stayed behind in the rural town I grew up in. My decision not to return to my small hometown was tough, and I know many have found themselves in the same boat. The decision not to have children is, of course, highly personal and requires a lot of thoughtful introspection, but as we see more and more milllenials choosing to forego children, I believe we will see a nearly proportionate corresponding reduction in hometown-returners.


Anonymous said...

To clarify, "Brain drain" in the context of the United States is a phenomenon best described as the loss of HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATES from rural areas. If our rural researchers were to walk into an international conference on migration and talk about their "brain drain" they would be quickly reminded that countries such as India and China are losing their top engineers, doctors, Ph.D's, and most educated to countries like the U.S. Losing high school graduates is not a sign of rural distress, otherwise the urban areas would be hand-wringing as well. You may be interested to read about the counter "brain gain" trend of 30-60 year old folks moving to rural places across the country which provides a much-need counter narrative to the doom and gloom that terms like the "brain drain" perpetuate.

Kaly said...

I found this to be a really interesting perspective on this topic, as I hadn't considered the connection between young people choosing to have children later and brain drain. It would be interesting to see a study comparing the birth rates in rural areas versus urban ones, as I wonder if the overall decline is seen uniformly everywhere. I'm also curious what programs, if any, rural communities have to encourage people to stay, and how effective those programs are.

ofilbrandt said...

I'm interested the counter brain-drain that the commenter above talks of. The "hipster" idealization of the rural combined with the internet bringing wider possibilities for employment (yes, I realize I assume here that people in rural populations are only employed in narrow vocations) to the rural landscapes has lead to a trend of people moving to the rural landscapes in order to do just that: move to a rural landscape.

These people are maintaining the connections and access to a faster way of life and a broader community through the internet, namely blogs. See this Harvard grad who "created the first all-diet CSA": and she blogs about it. See this rural Ohio farmer blog about her Pinterest-healthy life and farm: An ex-pat starts a farm in Spain, naturally blogs about it:

My point is that the counter brain-drainers are not "real rural." They are more like anthropologists, participant-observers that are not natives but come to learn and understand through practice alongside these natives. However, unlike said anthropologists, they fail to account for their own privilege and/or experience shaping the communities they inhabit. I need to unpack this more.

Anonymous said...

Are you implying that the hundreds of thousands of people that have chosen to move to a rural place do so for curiosity? Did you read any of the actual research? They are moving for quality of life, housing, safety, etc. They buy homes. Buy businesses. Bring their kids for good schools. Work across a variety of occupations. This has been happening since the 1970s, well before broadband.

The idea that rural people are all farmers is antiquated. Think about where these towns would be if nobody every moved TO them. You calling them "hipsters" says more about your bias than anything else. Please just let people who chose to move to your community actually call that town theirs without wrongly assuming their motivations. I recommend getting out and talking to these folks.

dnlauber said...

I really enjoyed reading your perspective on brain-drain and individuals returning to your small home-town. I do wonder whether this is unique to rural communities.

I grew up in Fresno--the fifth biggest city in California. Fresno is not a rural community due to the sheer number of people living in the city; however, there are many neighboring rural communities (including your own hometown). Yet, I see some of the same themes you describe in your hometown in mine. I'm only 22 years old and I could not count how many people from my high school are currently married with children. When I talk to people from home questions about my relationship status or intent to settle down and have children is commonplace. While the people I know who are married with children never left Fresno, I wonder how many of us who went away for college will return home. I wonder if this is experience is common in other places across the country, urban or rural, or unique to our experiences in the Central Valley.

EAG said...

I agree with Kaly and like your connection of making different reproductive choices with the brain drain. It would be interesting to see the different birth rates between urban and rural areas as Kaly suggested, but also to see if there is a correlation between birth rates and easy access to more reproductive options, which is more common in urban areas. It may be the case that rural women simply don't have the same options as urban women and are unable to make the same reproductive choices that allow urban women to not have children or to have them later.

I also wonder how the availability of higher paying jobs geared towards more educated individuals affects brain drain. I think that instead of trying to convince more educated people to come back to rural areas, those areas may benefit from rethinking higher education. Especially as blue collar jobs are becoming harder to find, rural areas may benefit from placing more emphasis on community college or vocational schools. For instance, rural areas may benefit from encouraging residents to go to local schools to become physician's assistants instead of doctors to help fill the void of medical professionals in rural areas. By investing more in young people in the area who are staying, rural areas may make it less tempting to leave in the first place.

Wynter K Miller said...

Anne, thank you for this genuinely thought-provoking post. I'd like to note that from my perspective, you did contextualize the brain drain phenomena in terms of the loss of high school graduates with your comment that rural areas often experience depopulation as residents leave to "obtain higher education unavailable in a small town." And I'm not at all sure that this loss of high school graduates is not a sign of rural distress — especially if out-migration is unaccompanied by in-migration (which your post suggests may indeed be the case, perhaps as a result of increased reproductive choice).

Moreover, urban areas do also engage in hand-wringing when it appears they are failing to retain their youth populations, which may or may not include young professionals with completed college degrees. See, e.g., Obviously, none of these comments should be construed as my suggesting that the loss of college-educated populations is unimportant.

Additionally, I would guess that culture, in addition to traditional considerations of safety and economics, plays a role. The article cited above discusses reasons given by youth populations in out-migration patterns: "Beyond the issue of jobs is a perception that Colorado Springs is a military town lacking the cultural and social amenities of Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins." The article also notes: ". . . they talk about a lack of entertainment options and a sense of exclusion from key decision-making roles as factors that drive them and their peers away."

As a concluding thought, EAG's comment above is well-stated. Investment in community colleges and vocational schools (as well as subsidies for rural practice) is a strong step in the right direction.