Rural Minnesota Endeavoring To Attract Younger People  

As noted in prior posts, many rural parts of the U.S., including Minnesota, have aging and declining populations that present many problems for the regions.[1] But there are hopeful signs that this trend may be reversing.

“The Blandin Foundation (Grand Rapids, MN) has found evidence of growing interest in small-town Minnesota: A study earlier this year showed more rural Minnesotans are staying put, with fewer considering moving to an urban area. Yet more urban residents — those in the Twin Cities, Duluth, Mankato, Moorhead, Rochester and St. Cloud — are considering moving to rural areas. The top reason they cited? Quality of life.”

This conclusion is supported by a University of Minnesota Extension rural sociologist, Ben Winchester, who said, “Rural Minnesota towns aren’t just experiencing a ‘brain drain’ of people in their 20s but also a ‘brain gain’ of people 30 to 49 years old. The next five, 10 years are going to be a big wave of change across rural Minnesota as we welcome a new generation. It’s good news for our small towns.”[2]

Now some rural towns in Minnesota are responding to those problems by developing programs to attract younger people to move and establish their homes. These newcomers are “all members of a growing migration of people in their 30s and 40s moving to rural Minnesota—a movement that foundations, nonprofits and local entities are hoping to boost even further with new strategies to recruit  and retain newcomers.”[3]

Here is an account of at least some of those programs.

Fergus Falls, Minnesota[4]

Fergus Falls is a town in and the county seat of Otter Tail County in the west central part of the state. The town’s estimated population in 2017 was 13,138, while the County’s was 58,812. The town was incorporated in the late 1870s and is situated along the dividing line between the former great deciduous forest of the Northwest Territories to the east and the great plains to the west, in a region of gentle hills, where the recent geological history is dominated by the recession of the glaciers from the last great Ice Age, with numerous lakes and small rivers.

In the mid-19th century the town and area’s initial settlers were Norwegian immigrants and Union soldiers returning from the Civil War, many of whom became farmers (wheat and corn in the western plains and dairy and hogs in the eastern hills and forests). In the 1950s Interstate Highway 94 was built along the western edge of the town, enhancing the mobility of the town’s residents with many young people leaving town to attend college and not returning.

Now the West Central Initiative Foundation in Fergus Falls is touting Otter Tail County as the place to live and supporting several ways to draw more young professionals to fill job openings and have children to fill classrooms. The Foundation’s CEO, Anna Wasescha, said. “We want to be sure our region of Minnesota is vibrant and sustainable.”

This Foundation began a marketing campaign called “Live Wide Open in 2016 to share stories about why residents are moving from the Twin Cities or other states. . . [It] holds ‘welcome home’ events for natives, hoping to persuade them to return, and also helped fund a nonprofit, the Glenwood Lakes Area Welcome Center, to expand a welcoming program and start a newcomer group.” The Otter Tail County helps these efforts with a  “rural rebound initiative coordinator,” who “tracks data and creates videos and social media posts promoting the county’s 24 communities to show millennials and Gen X-ers there’s a vibrant, affordable life with job openings — and no congested commute.” The county’s coordinator, Erik Osberg, said, “Rural isn’t dying; it’s changing, and it’s changing for the better.”

Osberg also helps organize a “grab-a-bite program” in Fergus Falls, pairing residents with newcomers to help make a friend and learn about the community, and puts on a concert on a frozen lake in the winter to showcase the county to Fargo and Twin Cities visitors. “If we’re going to win the recruiting battle … we need to be the most welcoming community in the state.”

One newcomer couple four years ago moved from the Twin Cities to Fergus Falls when they had their first child. The mother said they wanted smaller school class sizes and a quality of life like the one she had growing up in rural North Dakota; plus, her husband can work remotely for a Minnetonka, Minnesota software company. The mother now works as the  County’s community development director, tracking the ‘rural rebound’ through the county’s growing population and increasing kindergarten class sizes. “It’s amazing how many people we meet with similar stories.”

Another newcomer and mother, Ruth Rosengren, helped launch Fergus Falls’ first co-working space this summer while working remotely for a California-based web development company. “I hope more people see … Fergus Falls as a viable place to live without giving up a job you want,” she said.

Willmar, Minnesota[5]

In the southwestern part of the state, Willmar historically was a largely white, Lutheran, Scandinavian town. Now, however, with a population of 19,610 (2010 Census), t is very diverse with its high school having students from 30 other countries speaking at least four foreign languages. In response the high school has two foreign-language cultural liaisons to work with the students and teachers, and local businesses have created an entrepreneurship program for all the students and a Community Integration Center.

Mankato, Minnesota

In Mankato, a small city of approximately 43,000 in the south-central part of the state, local “businesses found that young professionals without  a social connection left within two years.” So the local chamber of commerce “announced a new program matching a resident with a newcomer.”

Last year Mankato’s local newspaper published an editorial, saying, “Here, in the south-central area of the state, we have seen . . . reliance on a diverse workforce both in small cities and in the regional center of Mankato. Meat plants in St. James, Madelia, Butterfield and Windom [smaller cities in southwestern Minnesota] depend heavily on minority workers. Mankato manufacturing plants also hire immigrant workers and a number of immigrants have become small-business owners.”

The editorial ended with these comments: “Population projections predict that as baby boomers retire, enough workers won’t be available to fill the vacant jobs in Minnesota. Our newest segments of population are going to be key to keeping our businesses going. And a continuing tradition of strong public education in Minnesota, with the financial support it deserves, should help train those workers of today and tomorrow.”

Worthington, Minnesota

Katy Kouba and her husband recently moved to Worthington, Minnesota in the southwest corner of the state in order to raise their three kids in a smaller community after living on both U.S. coasts. She said, “It was a leap of faith, “ but we “wanted the life-style that rural Minnesota had to offer. I love the connection in a small town.”  She now works as the community concierge helping other new residents be integrated into the town’s life.

As recounted in a prior post, Worthington’s population has surged from less than 10,000 in 1990 to 13,000 today with a median age of under 36 and foreign immigrants constituting roughly one-third of the population and owning more than 25% of the town’s businesses.[6]

Other Programs

 Escapees from Chicago to Ely, Minnesota near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Canada were Tony Moskowitz and his family. “I feel like I am on permanent vacation,” he said while running his business from his home.

Ely is also part of northern Minnesota’s Iron Range, where in 2015 a group of young adults started the nonprofits ReGen to “help retain young professional by organizing social events like snowtubing and game night while fundraising to revamp towns.

 The Northwest Minnesota Foundation of Bemidji in the northwestern part of the state, is making grants to cities for amenities that attract families — from trails to maps of attractions.”

In Winona in the southeastern part of the state, Project FINE “has a monthly event for neighbors to get to know one another.”

Conclusion

According to The Wall Street Journal, young professionals moving from large metropolitan areas to smaller cities and towns is happening across the U.S. Such workers are “fueling a renaissance in U.S. cities that lie outside the major job hubs. People who do their jobs from home, freelance or constantly travel for work are migrating away from expensive urban centers such as Los Angeles and San Francisco toward cheaper cities including Boise; Denver; Austin, Texas; and Portland, Ore.” This has meant that the smaller cities and towns are starting to see fast-rising home prices and traffic congestion.[7]

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[1] See, e.g., More Warnings of the Problems Facing U.S. Aging, Declining Population  (Aug. 14, 2019).

[2] Univ. MN Extension, A rural brain gain migration.

[3] Smith, Small cities seeing ‘rural rebound,’ Star Tribune (Sept. 1, 2019).

[4] Fergus Falls, Minnesota, Wikipedia; Fergus Falls Chamber of Commerce; Otter Tail County, Minnesota, Wikipedia.

[5] Additional Support for U.S. Needing More Immigrants, dwkcommentaries.com (May 18, 2019); Willmar, Minnesota, Wikipedia.

[6]  Outstate Minnesota City Aided by Immigrants, dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 5, 2018).

[7]  Eisen, Workers Are Fleeing Big Cities for Smaller Ones—and Taking Their Jobs With Them.,W.S.J. (Sept. 7, 2019).

Additional Support for U.S. Needing More Immigrants

 This blog previously has argued that the U.S. needs more immigrants, not fewer.[1] Additional support for that argument is found in recent news about U.S. population data, U.S. low unemployment rate and need for more workers and the examples of some U.S. communities welcoming immigrants.

U.S. Population Data[2]

There are two inter-related sets of U.S. population data that reflect the need for more immigrants: low U.S. native-born birth rate and foreign -born membership in the U.S. work force.

In 2018, the number of babies born in the U.S. was 3.79 million, the lowest in 32 years and the fourth year in a row that this number declined. Similarly the U.S. general fertility rate—the number of births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44—fell to 59.0, the lowest since the start of federal collection of this data. These statistics reflect fewer babies born to teenagers and unmarried women, lower Hispanic fertility rates and the increase in women obtaining college degrees.

Moreover, the total fertility rate—the estimated number of babies a woman would have over her lifetime—has generally been below the “replacement” number of 2.1 since 1971. This could mean (without immigration) a declining overall population and workforce too small to support a growing number of retirees and older people. Such support, of course, includes paying for the Social Security and medical benefits for senior citizens.

This decline in the native-born population has been counter-balanced by increases in the foreign-born who are members of the U.S. labor force. In 2018, there were  27.2 million foreign-born workers, representing 17.5% of the total work force, which is the highest percentage since 1996 when these records were first kept. This segment includes those who now are U.S. citizens, immigrants and those here temporarily. Moreover, the data shows that the foreign-born workers are becoming better educated and more likely to be Asian.

“The top overall reason for people to come to the United States is for employment,” said Jeanne Batalova, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

Shortages of Workers in U.S.[3]

In Minnesota, for example, “factory officials — especially those in rural areas — say severe worker shortages are increasingly impeding their growth and profits. A March survey indicated that nearly 50% of such officials said “their inability to find qualified workers had hurt growth. . . .a rise of 14 percentage points from 2017.“

It is not just Minnesota that is experiencing this situation. The director of a recent survey of the nine-state mid-America region says, “finding and hiring qualified workers remained the chief threat to manufacturing economy for the region. … Of surveyed factory managers, approximately 44.7% identified labor shortages as the greatest threat to company success in the next 12 months.”

A Wall Street Journal editorial makes the same points on a national level. It says that “there is little evidence” for the belief “that lower-skilled immigrants undercut American workers,” but on the contrary “U.S. workers, taxpayers and businesses would benefit from more immigrants of all skill levels.”

This editorial also attacks the concept of  a merit-point immigration system, recently put forward by President Trump. It says that such a system “is vulnerable to political meddling and will discriminate against less-educated strivers who also boost the U.S. economy. Merit systems don’t measure entrepreneurship and would keep out many less-skilled workers who start small businesses like the neighborhood dry cleaner. The plan also doesn’t increase or streamline guest-worker visas, which are crucial to reduce the incentive for illegal immigration.” Moreover, “Low-skilled immigrants are contributing heavily to the nation’s entitlement programs and sustaining Rust Belt communities that otherwise would be losing population. More immigration will be vital to maintaining the “safety net” as the U.S. fertility rate last year fell to a 32-year low.”

U.S. Communities Welcoming Immigrants[4]

 Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist and a Minnesota native, recently visited the city of Willmar, population of 19,610 (2010 census) in the southwestern part of Minnesota. Historically it was a largely white, Lutheran, Scandinavian town.

Now the town’s diversity is seen at its high school, which has  students from 30 countries in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The languages spoken there include English, Arabic, Somali, Spanish and Karen (the language of  an ethnic group from Myanmar). Visiting the school, Friedman saw “a Benetton ad of races, creeds, colors and clothing.” To assist this mixture the school has “Spanish-speaking and Somali-speaking cultural liaisons [who] work with teachers, students and parents, so families can learn how to advocate for their kids, what the rules are and just how the local culture works.”

The school’s principal, Paul Schmitz, summed up its challenge and mission this way, “Sustainable democracy in the world depends on the United States being a beacon of democracy. And that depends on how well we manage democracy in a pluralistic society.” And that depends on healthy public schools, because “the only shared experience we have any longer in America is through public education.”

Businesses in Willmar have donated money to “create an entrepreneurship program for area schools, through which selected kids begin their day by visiting or working at local businesses. There they have to come up with a business plan for a start-up, get it approved by a local banker, raise or borrow seed money themselves and work on the project instead of attending school for first part of each morning. . . . [One of the] Somali students . . . had started a company that makes short videos!”

Other Willmar collaboration occurs between a local community and technical college (Ridgewater College) and the K-12 schools, the local chamber of commerce, economic development commission and a community foundation. An example of that collaboration is the “Community Integration Center, which some Somali social entrepreneurs opened in 2017 to teach Somalis English and Minnesota culture and to teach Willmarites Somali and Somali culture.”

In short, Friedman discovered a successful community in Willmar because it needed workers to fill jobs, it embraced the immigrants and it has a critical mass of community leaders (business people, educators, philanthropists and social entrepreneurs). As Dana Mortenson, CEO of World Savvy, a global education organization, said, Minnesota towns that are rising are those “that . . .  need a trained work force with a good work ethic and . . . [that embraces] a redefined sense of community.”

More generally in Minnesota immigrants are slowing or halting or reversing population declines in 15 rural Minnesota counties. One such county [next to Willmar] is Stevens County, population of 9,726. Its county seat of Morris (5,286 population) has a large Latino contingent who were drawn here for employment by agribusinesses involved in dairy and beef cattle farming. A professor at the town’s University of Minnesota-Morris started evening  English-language courses for the newcomers that now operates twice a week at five levels of proficiency. This program also raises money to buy English books for the students and hosts events for long-time residents to meet the newcomers. The local library has books and library cards in Spanish. The newcomers organized a soccer tournament in the town.[6]

Conclusion

The objective reasons for wanting more U.S. immigration are clear—we need more workers. We also need younger workers who will help pay for the increasing costs of an aging native population. Rural areas with aging and declining population for their survival need immigrants.

These changes will be immensely aided by communities that welcome change and increasing diversity and develop ways to facilitate the assimilation of new people from different parts of the world with different lagnuages, customs, skin colors  and religions.

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[1]See, e.g.,these posts to dwkcommentaries:  “America’s Farms Need More Immigrants,” (Mar. 22, 2019); Businesses Need More Immigrants (Mar. 24, 2019); Trump Erroneously Says U.S. Is “Full,” (April 9, 2019).

[2]DeBarros, & Adamy, U.S. Births Fall to Lowest Level Since 1980s, W.S.J. (May 15, 2019); Freeman, A Historic Shortage of Americans, W.S.J. (May 15, 2019). 

[3] DePass, Minnesota Manufacturers say worker shortages hurting growth, StarTribune (May 15, 2019); Slaughter, Immigrants for the Heartland, W.S.J. (April 28, 2019); Editorial, Trump’s Immigration Progress, W.S.J. (May 17, 2019).

[4] Friedman, President Trump, Come to Willmar, N.Y. Times (May 14, 2019); Rao, In Minnesota counties losing population, immigrants slow the decline, StarTribune (May 12, 2019).

[5] Friedman’s account of visiting Willmar is reminiscent of his fond reminiscences of growing up in the successful integration of Jewish citizens with the existing Christian community of St. Louis Park, Minnesota and then the current intergraton in his home town of Latinos and Somalis into the exisitng white and African-Ameican population. (See Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, chs. 12, 13 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2016). See also, Reactions to Tom Friedman’s “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations,” dwkcommentaries.com (Mar. 13, 2017).