Moving Back to Rural America: Why Some Return Home and What Difference It Makes

Population loss persists in rural America, especially in more remote areas with limited scenic amenities. Communities in these areas are attuned to the annual out-migration of their “best and brightest” high school graduates, typically a third or more of each class.

But stemming rural population loss–and spurring economic development–may depend less on retaining young adults after high school and more on attracting former residents some years later. Researchers at the University of Montana and USDA’s Economic Research Service visited 21 rural communities during 2008 and 2009 and conducted 300 interviews at high school reunions. The aim was to better understand what motivates return migration and the barriers to such moves. Reunions allowed for simultaneous interviews with both return migrants and nonreturn migrants.

What were some of the reasons migrants gave for returning? Most frequently cited: the desire to reconnect with parents and to raise children back home.  In addition to support from family and friends, returnees sought familiar, easy-going environments. Some perceived rural towns as safer for children.

Just as school quality is considered in moves within cities and suburbs, decisions to return to rural communities often hinged on evaluations of school systems. Smaller class sizes and more interaction with teachers were valued more by returnees: “You know the teachers by their first names; you see them in the grocery stores.” Parents who chose not to return expressed more confidence in urban/suburban schools to meet their children’s needs.

Among nonreturnees, roughly half had considered moving back, and most cited low wages and limited career opportunities as primary barriers. Many pursuing technical and professional careers described the need to locate in a large city. At the same time, returnees 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 helped advance their goals.

Most returnees had brought spouses and children back home with them, increasing school enrollments and overall population. Returnees benefited rural communities through office-holding, charity work, and leadership roles in school activities, recreation projects, and business associations. Social relations promoted civic engagement: “I am very involved because in a small town that’s what you are expected to do.”

For talented youth, leaving rural communities is often an inevitable and highly encouraged rite of passage into adulthood. Several community leaders interviewed for the study wanted to modify this mindset: while some talented high school graduates may decide to move away to gain education and skills, they should also feel welcomed and encouraged to move back. Check out our report for a fuller discussion of rural return migrants.

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