Last week we shared information from the 2010 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll concerning changes in the social fabric and quality of life in rural communities. This week we continue to review the poll results dealing with population loss.
More than three-quarters of Iowa's counties have lost population since 1980, and half have seen their populations drop by more than 10 percent. Counties that rely the most on farming have generally been the hardest hit, with a number of Iowa's farm-dependent counties losing 20 percent or more of their population between 1980 and 2000. Over that same period, the rural population that lives on farms declined from nearly 400,000 to under 200,000. While this is a long-term trend, population loss, especially the loss of young, educated people from Iowa's rural areas, often referred to as the "rural brain drain", has garnered increasing attention over the last several years.
Looking at the population decline in the six counties of ISU Extension Region 6 in that 1980 to 2000 timeframe, only Buena Vista County had less than a double digit decline at a loss of -1.7% (363 people). The other five counties showed the following population losses; Calhoun County -17.9% (2,427 people), Cherokee County -19.7% (3,203 people), Ida County -12.0% (1,071 people), Pocahontas County -23.8% (2,707 people), and Sac County -18.3% (2,589 people).
The Farm Poll included questions exploring farmers' perspectives related to population decline. The highest-rated population decline issues were directly related to the out-migration of younger community members. The issues were: inability to attract or retain young people; loss of the brightest young people to other places; and, an increasing proportion of older residents due to out-migration of young people. Following in order of level of concern were the loss of young people to urban areas and declining viability of local schools. Interestingly, general population decline, while it did rate as a concern, was rated lowest. This finding suggests that overall population decline is less of a concern in rural communities than the loss of young people.
Farm Poll participants were provided a list of factors that may be considered potential contributors to rural out-migration among Iowa's youth and young adults. Not surprisingly, economic factors topped the list of potential reasons for leaving. Ninety-five percent of farmers agreed or strongly agreed that young people have left their communities because larger communities offer higher paying jobs, and 94% agreed that a lack of good jobs in their communities has contributed to young people leaving. Two other statements received levels of agreement greater than 50 percent: "There is really nothing here to retain young families," (60%); and, "Young people are no longer interested in farming and rural living," (51%).
Some analysts suggest that many rural communities have done little to retain their young people, or have actively encouraged them, especially the best and brightest, to leave in search of opportunities elsewhere. On the whole, Farm Poll participants do not agree with those assessments. Only about one-third of farmers agreed that community leaders do not appear to care about loss of the younger population, and just 32 percent agreed that their communities have ignored the issue. Only thirty percent agreed that young people are encouraged to leave. These numbers indicate that a substantial minority of farmers believe that their communities have not done enough to retain young people.
To view the entire 2010 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll summary, go to the ISU Extension Online Store found at: " www.extension.iastate.edu/store/, and search for publication PM3007.