No. 1224



There is an old joke about this man who heard that 80 percent of all accidents occur within 25 miles of home -- so he moved. Well, apparently a lot of people are moving, but not for the same reason.
There is an alarming trend taking place in America today that is cause for concern, at least in some circles. This is the loss of population in rural areas that has caused the majority of our citizens to believe that “rural America is dying.” The 2020 census is likely to show the extent of this trend, expecting the share of the population living in rural counties will be less than it was in 2010. A majority of rural counties saw their populations dwindle, including 54 percent of rural counties in the Northeast and 68 percent of those in the Midwest, according to a study by Pew Research.
You might ask, “Why is this happening?” Well, a number of reasons, beginning with the exodus of jobs and youth. For example, 73 percent of rural counties had more people move out than move in, and again this was most notable in the Northeast and Midwest. Of the 1,969 rural counties Pew Research studied, 1,197 have fewer people employed today than they did in 2010. Then there is also the issue of birth rates vs. death rates. Young people tend to move out of rural areas at a rate higher than people move in.
Rural areas are overwhelmingly white – only 2.3 percent of the population in rural counties is foreign born, to nearly 15 percent in urban counties, according to census data. And then there is the issue of opioids. Higher death rates for 18- to 64-year-olds in rural counties are often attributed at least in part to the opioid epidemic, which has ravaged many rural areas in the U.S.
Now, please allow me to bring this issue a little closer to home and talk about where I live, as this is where I am most knowledgeable. Back in the 1970s when I was working with our schools in Arkansas, I made speeches in 72 of our 75 counties. Over the past 50 years I have seen a tremendous amount of change in this basically agricultural state. As farms became more mechanized, thousands of people were forced to leave the state as there were no jobs. Thanks to aggressive campaigns to promote tourism and attract business and industry to Arkansas, we have slowly turned that around.
However, today it is sad to travel the eastern and southern parts of Arkansas and see so many store fronts boarded up and very little taking place in many of these small towns that were once thriving. Again, what is the answer? Well, from my perspective, it has to be education. Good schools are what people look for when they decide to move or relocate. The reason jobs and factories can’t and won’t locate in these communities is the lack of skilled labor.
As it relates to education, we have a community just 10 miles north of where I live that is a sterling example of what I am saying. The little community of Greenbrier, Arkansas, is experiencing rapid growth, along with an increasing quality of life for its citizens. This small town of 5,500 people has a tremendous school system. In fact, this community is growing faster than 94 percent of similar-sized cities since the year 2000, and it is 10 times safer than other towns of similar size. I have been privileged to be a part of their bookcase project to give pre-school children a personalized bookcase and some books to foster a love of reading.
Here is my recommendation: If we want to stem the tide of losing population, work on having better schools. It’s the best investment we could ever make.
(Editor’s Note: JIM DAVIDSON is an author, public speaker, syndicated columnist and founder of the Bookcase for Every Child project. Since its inception in 1995, Jim’s column has been self-syndicated to over 375 newspapers in 35 states, making it one of the most successful in the history of American journalism.)