Experts Analyze Rural Population Loss

When you ask people what’s the most important thing you consider that makes a community a good community, the answer is safety,

- Dr. Randy Cantrell

NORFOLK — It’s been a trend for nearly 100 years. A migration from rural to urban, and northeast Nebraska is no exception.

Stanton County’s population peaked in 1930, same with Boone County. Antelope County’s height was in 1920. And the trend isn’t changing.

According to data from the US Census Bureau, the population of each county in our seven-county sampling went down in the last 15 years. To understand this movement, we begin our five-part series by talking to experts to see why people choose to live where they do. Let’s start at the beginning.

“First, you had the mechanization of Agriculture,” University of Nebraska-Lincoln Developmental Sociologist Dr. Randy Cantrell said. “So, as that becomes possible it becomes possible for an individual to do more work on the land, it became less necessary to have labor there.”

That’s how it started according to Cantrell. There was less need for labor on farms, so people moved to cities. Then, there was less need for retail in the town and fewer patrons for entertainment, so those businesses left. A downward spiral. But as farm growth has slowed in the last couple decades, what’s still driving the out-migration? Cantrell says it’s opportunity.

“So you have young people in a rural place saying, ‘Well gee, I can’t go to college here and I can’t join the Navy here,’ so they leave,” Cantrell said.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Some counties have grown. In our area, you look at Madison and Platte counties. They, of course, have the commonality of a city with more than 20,000 people. That’s the cutoff according to Columbus Chamber of Commerce President K.C. Belitz, if a county has a city of 20,000 it grows, if it doesn’t, it shrinks.

“Right now that’s the magic number. Doesn’t mean that will be the next time those numbers come out in 2020. So at some point, the trend is pretty clear and it has been for decades and decades. The larger the town the more you grow, the smaller the town the more you shrink,” Belitz said.

So you can argue that growth has never been more important than it is now. And Cantrell says there’s much you can champion about life in rural Nebraska. His research shows small-town residents are satisfied with their community, their association with neighbors and their local government, while urban populations are more satisfied with shopping and entertainment options. But Cantrell says there’s one feature both groups value.

“When you ask people what’s the most important thing you consider that makes a community a good community, the answer is safety,” Cantrell said. “Rural folks believe they are safer than do urban folks, even though both urban and rural folks rate that as equally important.”

One example Cantrell used to illustrate his point is the basic activity of buying a hammer. If you’re in Grand Island, for example, you go to Menard’s and just know the person selling it to you is wearing a green vest. But if you’re a resident of Pierce, you go to Hank’s Hardware and it’s likely you know Jeff who’s selling you the hammer and a little bit of her background, which gives a sense of familiarity and safety.

So those in charge of retaining rural populations are boasting quality of life as a reason to move or stay in a small town.

“It’s great schools, it’s a safe place for their children to be, it is quality of life amenities like trails, and a great YMCA and those things,” Belitz said. “It’s a place they feel welcome.”

So there are efforts to buck the out-migration trend, but it’s still clear that rural Nebraska is losing its population. Check back the rest of the week as we look at what this means for specific aspects of communities. Tomorrow we look at schools. With shrinking enrollments, how are they coping?

We strive for accuracy. Report a typo, inaccuracy, or mistake here.