Reasons for returning – or not returning – to rural communities once young people have left their home cities and towns are varied, but USDA researchers have found that family involvement and child-rearing considerations surface as key drivers in both situations.
In a new report, "Factors affecting former residents' returning to rural communities," USDA Economic Research Service researchers conducted about 300 interviews at high school reunions in 21 rural communities to determine reasons for leaving or coming back to rural communities.
Census data show that rural counties with low scenic amenities typically lost 20- to 24-year-olds to outmigration at nearly twice the rates seen in other rural counties, but showed higher inmigration among 30- to 34-year-olds and young children.
Legislators have attempted to promote programs that encourage return migration that populates rural communities. Such programs are also part of USDA efforts.
Return migration, USDA says, helps raise education levels and labor supply while increasing "social vitality."
Why formerly rural residents return
"I wanted to raise a family with my wife ... and make a difference in a community. Just to raise kids ... who could pursue their own life of happiness. It isn’t anything much more complicated than that," one interviewee told USDA researchers.
Many expressed similar family-related reasons responsible for their return to rural communities, citing smaller class sizes, more robust involvement in school sports and involvement with grandparents for children, as well as other benefits from being near family members as reasons for returning to rural hometowns.
Others said they had always planned to return to their rural hometowns, but were waiting on the right time. Some cited job availability and desire to raise a family in a rural setting as reasons for returning.
"Well, you were brought up here for 18-24 years. You come home because you finally have found that inner peace within yourself, ... that comfort zone," another interviewee said.
Nonreturnees more likely to be single
Nonreturnees, the report said, were more likely than returnees to be single or to be married but not planning on having children.
For many of them, lack of incentives centered on child-raising reduced motivations to return. "I don’t think I would [move back] even though it was a wholesome upbringing. ... I like it to be a little bit larger... but maybe if I had a family," an interviewee said.
Some said their family has also since left their hometown, along with friends, leaving few reasons to return. Migration rates generally are considerably lower for 40- to 60-year-olds compared with 25- to 40-year-olds, likely because many have middle- and high-school aged children that they do not want to uproot.
Related: 20 and 10: Lessons for graduates
Nonreturnees also cited employment barriers. Roughly half of nonreturnees made it clear they had never considered moving back home and probably never would, because of few cultural amenities and/or career development.
"We would like to [move back] in some respects but, in reality, it’s terrible about the money deal," a respondent said. "There are no jobs here. I’m making more money than I ever dreamed possible."
Dual-earner families felt especially challenged relocating to smaller towns with limited employment options, the report said, but community leaders say a large number of good jobs for administrators, managers, and other professionals are hard to fill.
Other move motivators
USDA researchers found that relatively few moves back home were motivated by the need to care for aging parent, and many who returned still had parents who were working.
Several cited family businesses as a reason for return. "I came back to farm," one interviewee explained. "I came back and helped him on the farm and played baseball with our town team. This felt like the right place to be."
Volunteerism and involvement also was a motivator for moves, ERS researchers found. Feelings of trust and willingness to help others were cited as attractive qualities of small towns. A perceived slower pace of living and availability of outdoor recreation opportunities also were factors.
Returnees repopulate, fill positions
USDA said the returnees interviewed brought children and spouses with them, repopulating communities and filling schools and jobs.
Returnees also came home with education and training to fill positions as doctors, pharmacists, accountants, bankers, lawyers, hospital administrators, teachers, business managers, and entrepreneurs. Strong community ties made it easier to translate their education and training into economic and social benefits, the report said.
Even though some come home, for talented and motivated youth, leaving rural communities is an inevitable and highly encouraged rite of passage from adolescence into adulthood, the report said.
While talented high school graduates are rightly encouraged to move away to gain education and skills, they should also feel welcomed and encouraged to move back, administrators said.
"It creates a culture, right from the beginning of people saying 'hey, you don’t stay around here if you’re young, go someplace else and figure out what life’s all about,'" one administrator said. "Well, if we’re going to be successful at maintaining a population of our rural communities and rural America, we’re going to have to change that perception."
Read more in the full report, "Factors affecting former residents' returning to rural communities"