Why live in rural Minnesota?

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There’s been a two-pronged approach today on Minnesota Public Radio to an old Minnesota problem: Keeping rural Minnesota vital in an era when young people, in particular, tend to move away. I’m not sure we’ve found answers.

First, MPR’s Midmorning has been talking to Patrick Carr, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University and co-author of “Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America.”

One of the most interesting things he said this morning — and I’m paraphrasing — is that schools make a mistake by identifying the best and the brightest, lavishing educational resources on them, pushing them off to college, the stepping stone to a life lived somewhere else.

He noted that in “the old days” the people who stayed behind could find a decent job and a live a good life, but those opportunities aren’t in such abundance anymore.

What’s a state to do? Gov. Pawlenty tried his JOBZ program to encourage businesses to locate in rural Minnesota, and that hasn’t really worked that well. In many communities, the major employer is the school system and some would say the state isn’t exactly friendly to that business these days. “I’m an achiever who moved away. I just can’t move my kids back to the small town when the schools are underfunded and the older citizens continually ignore the schools in their rigid rejection of taxes,” reader Chad wrote.

Meanwhile, Public Insight Network boss Michael Caputo has been hosting an online discussion with some experts around the state. Ben Winchester of the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality, for example, disputed the notion of a brain drain, saying the age 30-49 migration to rural Minnesota is at record levels.

An online reader added:


I’m a 38-year-old who recently returned to my small town with my husband and kids after 20 years living in and nearer the Twin Cities. I wanted to come back years ago, but jobs are a big issue. My husband commutes to the Cities; we live about an hour west of Mpls. One thing that has helped him is DSL recently coming to our neighborhood, allowing him to work at home 2 days a week. Before that we had no good high-speed access.

A caller, who moved up from Chicago, said she moved back to rural Minnesota and she attempted publish a calendar of cultural happenings in outstate Minnesota, and now questions whether anyone cares.

Another reader wrote:


I’m 28, I used to live in an urban area and have moved to a smaller town 6 months ago. I was really worried about finding a job, especially in this recession, but because we have good broadband here, I was able to get a job from a company based in NYC.

What can one conclude from all of this? Here are some possibilities:

1) You can move to rural Minnesota if you make your living in some consulting field and can find a company to hire you without having you sit in a cubicle somewhere. But how many opportunities — really — are there for people like that? Still, listener Russell of Lake City proves it can be done. “My wife and I are in our mid twenties and just moved back to our hometown this summer immediately after completing our masters degrees. Our first child is due anyway now and we wanted to raise our kid in a small town and near family. I work for a large bank and was able to get a job that allowed me to work from home. My wife works in health care so she had plenty of options near Lake City. Being able to work from home really allowed this to happen,” he said.

2) You can move to rural Minnesota if you make your money in the big city, and can afford to retire or otherwise “live down” economically. But how many people can do that?

3) You can move to rural Minnesota if you don’t mind a long commute to your job in the Twin Cities.

4) You can move to Minnesota if you’re self employed or have skills in fields that are in demand in rural Minnesota. What are those?

5) You can move to rural Minnesota if you’re in the education or health care field.

Unquestionably, rural Minnesota is a great place. Small towns offer a quality of life that can’t be found in cities.

But how can one make a living there? That’s the question that seems to be the key to today’s discussions. It also seems to be the one that hasn’t yet been answered.

  • Eilzabeth T

    What constitutes “rural”? Is the U of M Extension Center counting people living in the exurbs that they fondly refer to as “we bought a farm” (though it is in reality a large tract of land no longer in use as an agricultural contribution to the state’s economy)…? Migration might be at an all-time high (though that seems more like statistically based wishful thinking). But that’s simply the rate of people moving back; it has nothing to do with the rate of people leaving (which is on the graph you linked to). 50% leaving and 20% returning is still serious brain-drain.

    This doesn’t take into consideration what type of “rural” towns are measured. “Towns” excludes, I presume, what I think of as truly rural. i.e., not in a town. The graph is for “non-metro” areas. This includes both towns and truly rural areas. The immigration into those areas are different.

    I’m not from WV, I just happened to be there during high school, so I ought not be counted in the ‘left but didn’t return’. Doing so would increase the emigration rate.

    I’m curious about the disproportional distribution of limited resources. It makes sense. I went to a rural W.Va. high school (in our county of about 5,000 people, there was one small town and one high school for the whole county). There were a handful of teachers who might fit into this division of resources: 1 taught a year of French on top of being an English teacher; alternating years with chemistry or physics were taught by the Phys.Ed/Sports coach; & the math teacher one year decided to teach calculus. We had a very limited curriculum: these were the entire extent of more academically rigorous classes. Those teachers did it as part of their job, or on top of their regular classes.

    No one took these courses unless they were planning to go to college; and yes, those people tended not to come back.

    But, conversely, the entire sports curriculum with basketball and football and track…? I’m willing to bet that the money the school spent on those exceeded the portion of the 3 teachers’ salaries which were for the extra classes. Of course, I find it repulsive that I can refer to chemistry or a foreign language as “extra” classes.

    The students on the sports teams, from what I could tell, were more likely to stay. The guest this morning had a term for this group of people. I don’t judge one to be better or not. After all, if you don’t want to go to college, the students will still want to participate in other things, so why not sports?

    My point is that there is an unequal distribution of some limited resources in favor of the stay-in-town students.

  • Mike R

    I question the premise of the question. In my experience, cities offer a quality of life that can’t be found in small towns.

    I’m 40 years old, grew up in a small town and I am glad to have left. I never would have had the opportunities there that I’ve had in the Twin Cities metro area. The job market sorts itself out; talent flows to where it’s needed and where it is rewarded.

  • Amy

    I always ask myself this question every time I’m out of the cities. I have relatives who’ve lived their whole lives up north without an employer paying them-they were self-employed. They had a shop, made ceramics, and taught it to the locals. After they closed the shop they made quilts and signs for people. They are completey self-sufficient and independent. Others up there that are working are the same. One neighbor exchanges videos out of grocery stores and makes quite a good living of it. Others don’t have too much for a home, but live capturing and selling bait.

    If you want to live outside of the cities, seems to me you have to be one thing-independent enough to find your niche. You can’t move out there and look to someone else for your job.

  • Alison

    I clearly have a minority point of view here, but many towns in rural areas aren’t exactly LGBT friendly places. I’m not talking about a campy ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’ sort of fashion and night club scene. I’m talking about everyday acceptance of a neighbor who happens to be gay and out. And since estimates are as many as 1 in 10 people are gay, that tends to drive at least that small segment away.

  • http://minnesota.publicradio.org Pat

    I agree with Mike R. Urban areas offer a quality of life that can’t be found in rural areas. That said, let’s drop the “quality” of life discussion as urban/rural offer DIFFERENT lifestyles. Which is “better” is a matter of preference. Frankly, I’m allergic to rural. As the old song says, “take me to where the cement grows.”

  • bsimon

    “Why live in rural Minnesota?”

    Or, why not live in rural Minnesota?

    Opportunity has to be the #1 reason. After I finished college, I returned to rural WI & commuted to Milwaukee for 9 months, until moving up here (Minneapolis). There just plain weren’t the kinds of opportunities – or they weren’t evident to me – that there were up here. I moved up here to work for a consulting firm that sent me (and others) to training for 8 weeks before sending us out on the job. That gave me a start in a career that has been fairly lucrative for the last 16 years. I doubt that staying in rural WI would have come close to offering me the same opportunities – and I say that coming from the part of the state where very successful companies like Sargento & Kohler are headquartered.

  • GregS

    My wife and I bought a house a few miles outside her southern Minnesota home town. It is where we will live when we retire in a few years.

    I have met a wide range of professional in rural Minnesota and Wisconsin who make their living by commuting at light speed through the wire.

    These people are part of an rather interesting trend of people who have established their careers in the city then moved to rural areas where they make their living by consulting.

  • GregS

    “I clearly have a minority point of view here, but many towns in rural areas aren’t exactly LGBT friendly places.”

    I understand what you are saying, Alison, but I don’t agree with you. While many rural communities might have an insular and conservative culture, there are plenty of places that do not follow that trend.

    There is a fairly large LGBT community strung along the St Croix and further down on Mississippi River between Hastings and Winona.

    Economies based on tourism tend to be very open and hospitable to gays.

  • Michal

    Why live in rural MN?

    1. a 2-5 minute commute to work.

    2. medical professionals of all stripes are badly needed (I am in mental health)-no problems getting a job of this type.

    3. Even on black Friday you can park free in front of the store on main street and walk a couple of feet.

    4. NO TRAFFIC JAMs! AND Drivers are infinitely more curteous in rural MN.

    5. CLEAN AIR

    6. FEWER SNOBS

    7. Many cultural and academic opportunites if you put the effort into finding them.

    8. live where there is a sense of community and people say hello to you just because you are on the sidewalk

  • Dan

    For those who enjoy the quietness of the wilderness it is out your back door. There are jobs in rural America, though they may pay considerably less. That may be a very good thing. You can find entertainment and exercise in the silent sports – cross country skiing, walking, hiking, paddling, etc. A fair amount of food can be grown in a small garden. If a lower income necessitates living on less, clothing can be purchased at a nearby rummage sale or used clothing store. Look about you. How many people have amassed items they want rather than what they need for survival. The end result of living a simple life in rural America can be a much smaller carbon footprint and a greener lifestyle.