Friday, June 30, 2017

A solution for the population drain in rural America?

Why is Appalachia losing population, and how can the trend be reversed?

An editorial from The Roanoke Times notes that it's tied to both economics and demographics: young people are moving away to find jobs elsewhere, especially in coal country where there are fewer jobs than in years past.

When young adults leave rural areas, the median age of the remaining population goes up. Because coal counties now have some of the highest median ages in the country, that means that more people are dying than being born. For example, "In 2015, there were about 1,800 babies born in Virginia's coalfields. But about 2,400 people died," the editorial reports.

This gap will only grow in coming years as Baby Boomers begin to die off in greater numbers and young people continue to move away. According to demographer Hamilton Lombard of the University of Virginia, rural Southwest Virginia's population goes down by about 600 people a year just from locals giving birth or dying, without even accounting for anyone moving away. That deficit is likely to increase.

Proposed improvements to infrastructure, such as a proposed $5.1 billion highway through Southwest Virginia, might only serve as a stopgap solution, says Lombard. "It was hard to convince [community leaders] that the expressway would only likely slow population loss rather than by itself generate a boom in growth," he says.

So how does coal country create a baby boom? In terms of pure numbers, Lombard says young adults need to stay put, and women would need to have 3.5 to four children each over the next decade. If people could not be convinced to stay put, the birth rate would need to be markedly higher.

Such an outcome is simply not feasible, the editorial notes, advocating instead for a possibly less-palatable strategy: encouraging immigration.

"One of the great ironies of our current political situation is that anti-immigration sentiment runs highest in rural areas," the editorial says. "Yet it's rural areas that logically should be the loudest champions for increased immigration."

In some rural Canadian towns, reports Alia Dharssi for The Calgary Herald, community leaders are aggressively encouraging immigrants to settle down. Their approach is noteworthy because they are actively seeking large numbers of blue collar workers to increase their tax base; traditionally immigrants are more easily admitted when they are highly skilled "white collar" workers.

Some Canadian immigrants have chafed at blue collar work, though; in another story for The Calgary Herald, Dharssi writes about highly educated immigrants who took rural restaurant or retail jobs simply as a way to get into Canada. Once there, many try to get accreditation and find jobs in their profession, often in more urban areas where those jobs are readily available. Because of language barriers and bureaucracy, not many succeed.

One question to consider then, is how many blue collar jobs immigrants would attract to rural America and whether enough immigrants would stay put to create a net population gain.

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