MANKATO — The “brain drain” from rural Minnesota has long been a focus of worry for leaders and employers in rural Minnesota counties.
Those graduating high school or local colleges often leave for the Twin Cities metro or other large cities to start careers and find more social and cultural activities.
Kelly Asche, research associate with the Center for Rural Policy & Development, said that while everyone has focused on the brain drain and its effects on communities’ future, they have missed another positive population pattern.
“Most rural areas see heavy losses in the 18- to 29-year-old group. But something under that radar is that almost every rural county sees gains in those ages 30-49.”
That’s one of the trends Asche has seen as he tracks population changes in the state as he updates the center’s annual State of Rural Minnesota report.
Asche said the inflow of the 30-49 group doesn’t usually make up for the loss of the 18-29 group rural counties see. But he thinks it’s good news and an opportunity for rural areas.
“We haven’t really tried to recruit those people in the 30-49 group who seem ready to migrate to rural areas.” That group, he said, generally has higher incomes and leadership qualities that communities seek.
He said research by the University of Minnesota Extension shows that a lot of those in their 30s and 40s have moved to rural areas because of lower housing costs, as well as things like smaller class sizes in schools, pace of living and outdoor opportunities.
But the skyrocketing cost of housing in recent years meant many rural communities are now seeing a housing crunch as more people bought homes in those communities.
“Rural areas have a huge housing crunch now, following the pandemic. It will be interesting to see how that affects those trends in the years ahead,” Asche said.
Blue Earth and Nicollet counties have routinely seen increases in those ages 18-29, because of the colleges and universities in Mankato, North Mankato and St. Peter. And the two counties also see a decent in-migration of those in the 30-49 group.
The pandemic upended a lot of past trends. The recent State of Rural Minnesota report also found that in 2020 and 2021 rural counties saw a population increase from in-migration while the Twin Cities’ urban counties saw a population loss due to out-migration.
The unprecedented change from past decades was likely from a number of factors, including people able to work remotely and civil unrest in the metro. Asche said no one knows if it was a one-time blip or will continue.
Ryan Vesey, economic development specialist with Greater Mankato Growth, said his agency is targeting the 30-49 group that may be considering moving out of the Twin Cities.
GMG has billboards and social media marketing in the Twin Cities to try to lure them to Greater Mankato.
“We know that younger people move to the Twin Cities but when they get to be parents they will move back out. We’re targeting those parents.”
Vesey said Mankato saw more out-migration from July 2020 to July 2021. “We saw virtually zero percent growth, which is the lowest we’ve seen in a long time.”
But when numbers from 2021 to 2022 soon come out, Vesey expects he’ll see the population grew at a healthy rate. He said while Mankato lost some residents from 2020-2021, a larger out-migration from the Twin Cities occurred the following 12 months, with Greater Mankato benefiting.
“As that larger group moves out of the Twin Cities metro, we will get a lot of them.”
Diversity equals growth
Minnesota’s population has been flat in the past two years and long-range forecasts suggest decline. But communities and counties with a more diverse population are growing.
“Counties with higher populations of persons of color or Latino are generally seeing higher growth, both from higher in-migration and from higher birth rates,” Asche said.
The state demographer predicts that in the next 20 years or more those diverse counties will continue to see growth while predominantly white counties will see losses or remain flat.
That diverse-fueled growth is especially visible in Watonwan County, where communities have steadily drawn more Latinos who work in food processing plants.
Sue Harris, community education director for the St. James Public Schools, who also works with Madelia and Butterfield schools, said the white population is now in the minority in their schools.
And Hispanics are nearly half of the total population. The 2020 Census shows St. James’ population stands at 4,793, with 42% Hispanic.
Overall, Watonwan County’s population grew slightly from 2010-2020, but the white population fell by 1,000 people.
Harris said the diverse population is continuing to drive growth.
“It’s true in our communities. In the preschool census in Madelia and St. James we have more preschoolers than we’ve ever had before.
“Our diversity has helped us gain.”
Overall, school class sizes are growing, reversing a trend of falling significantly.
“In St. James, 25 or 35 years ago, classes had 160 kids. Then more recently they were down to 70 or 80. Now our census is showing classes of 90 to 100,” she said.
One thing not likely to change is that the birth rate among whites has fallen dramatically, meaning there are more deaths than births each year, a reversal of the past.
While childbirth is declining nationwide it’s happening faster in Minnesota than other parts of the country, based on CDC National Center for Health Statistics.
Births are down 8% in Minnesota since 2016. That’s the 16th largest decrease nationwide. (quotewizard.com/news/states-where-births-decreased-most).
Birth rates among Latinos and persons of color are higher.
Where we work
The State of Rural Minnesota shows that top employment sectors by county haven’t changed a lot in recent years.
“Across the state, the number one employment sector, no matter where you are, is health and education,” Asche said.
That’s the case for Blue Earth and Nicollet counties, where a robust health care system, colleges, universities and K-12 schools account for the largest share of the workforce.
Asche notes that in places like Blue Earth and Nicollet counties, as well as Olmsted County where Mayo is located, there are numerous jobs that support hospitals and clinics.
While health and education dominate, he said rural counties add employment diversity to the state.
“You get into southern Minnesota and agriculture and manufacturing are bigger.”
Sibley County is dominated by ag jobs, Le Sueur County by manufacturing, while Brown County has a big transportation and trade sector.
“Minnesota has the fifth most diverse economy in the country and the reason is because of rural Minnesota,” Asche said.
That job diversity has always protected the state from big ups and downs in the economy that hit many other states harder.
The Legislature requires the center to create the State of Rural Minnesota report each year to help guide policymakers in how rural conditions have changed and where they are at now.
The State of Rural Minnesota report can be found at: ruralmn.org/the-state-of-rural-2023/
A supplement study, The Rural Atlas, can be found at: https://center-for-rural-policy.shinyapps.io/Atlas/