Bleak portrayals of rural America have become so commonplace that it might shock some readers to learn many young families are moving to rural Wisconsin because they want to live there.
Officials and the media have been fretting for years about the “brain drain” phenomenon of young adults leaving small towns in search of better opportunities in metro areas. News outlets have been pushing a sky-is-falling narrative with headlines such as “Rural America is the New ‘Inner City,’” “The Graying of Rural America” and “As More Move to the City, Does Rural America Matter?”
Sure, rural America has challenges (so do metro areas), but a new UW-Madison study shows many young adults think highly of rural communities and are moving there because small towns offer what many large cities don’t: safety and a sense of community.
The UW-Madison study, which examined 12 small to mid-size Wisconsin municipalities, including Evansville and Delavan, dispels assumptions about both rural and urban living. While young adults are moving to Evansville and Delavan, they aren’t flocking to highly urbanized Milwaukee County.
Evansville had a 40 percent increase in young adults over the past decade, while Delavan experienced a 23 percent increase. Meanwhile, Milwaukee County mostly failed to lure young people, with fewer than 10 percent of Milwaukee County municipalities showing growth in the population among those 20 to 39 years old between 1990 and 2010.
“Brain drain” isn’t exclusively a rural problem, nor does it describe Rock County’s or Walworth County’s situations. Here, we’re experiencing a “brain gain.”
This study is another reason to shed rural stereotypes and rewrite the sad narratives advanced by writers whose biases betray their sense of urban superiority. These writers and publications look down on rural lifestyles and (wittingly or not) sell rural America as undesirable for young, progressive families.
Rural communities are in some ways more progressive than their urban peers, which can feel lonely despite their dense populations. Rural America today offers a much-needed respite from our 24/7 wired culture. Strong communities rely on interpersonal exchanges. They encourage trust and kindness among neighbors, which older adults took for granted as youth but is elusive nowadays, especially in urban centers.
The UW-Madison study’s participants reveal a longing for a community-oriented lifestyle. One Evansville resident said, “I love it here. It’s really friendly, and not everyone is into the small town thing, but it’s homey. I feel safe here. I walk around a lot at night by myself.” Another said, “It’s dangerous for us to run errands because anything can become a social opportunity.”
Spontaneous social opportunities are one of the many reasons young adults are heading to rural communities. Rock and Walworth counties along with other rural areas should focus more on what they have to offer and worry less about their shortcomings. (Remember, urban living isn’t the utopia often implied in articles focusing on rural problems.)
The UW-Madison study is proof “brain gain” is possible in rural areas and is happening here. Rural Rock and Walworth counties aren’t dying. They’re growing and thriving, but don’t expect our urban neighbors to admit this bit of good news.