Brain Gain in Greater Minnesota: A Continuing Rural Success Story

Migration from rural to urban is the story of America’s progress.  In our just over 200-year history, we’ve moved from a nation of Jeffersonian farmers to a majority of urbanites.  Bigger is better, of course.

But not always is bigger better.  And if America is anything, we’re a nation of rebels and rabble-rousers who relish countering the common wisdom.

Across rural America young families are coming home.  Ben Winchester at University of Minnesota Extension (a small-town resident himself) has updated his ground-breaking research on rural migration and the “Brain Gain” for Census 2010 results:

Rural Minnesota lures middle-aged newcomers, U of M study of U.S. Census data shows

MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL (5/16/2012) –Rural Minnesota continued to attract new residents aged 30 to 49 between 2000 and 2010, according to a new study of U.S. Census data from University of Minnesota Extension.

The news that people are moving into rural areas may seem counterintuitive, especially when headlines and book titles proclaim a “brain drain” and the supposed demise of rural America when 18- to 25-year-olds leave. But, according to Ben Winchester, University of Minnesota Extension rural sociologist and author of the study, the rural in-migration of 30- to 49-year-olds who bring with them educational achievements and established earning power creates a “brain gain” for these rural areas. The notion builds on research he first published in 2009, examining 1990 and 2000 Census data.

“It’s the rule that young people move to pursue educational and career goals, not the exception,” said Winchester. “Instead of labeling that loss as ‘doom and gloom’ for rural, I’ve examined the population trends more deeply. Acknowledging the brain gain allows rural places to focus on their strengths and opportunities, which is the work of any community striving for a brighter future.”

In the new report, “Continuing the Trend: The Brain Gain of the Newcomers,” Winchester updates Minnesota’s population shifts as captured by the 2010 Census and provides an examination of the trend at the national level.

One new finding reveals that Greater Minnesota’s micropolitan counties, or those with core urban populations of 10,000 to 49,999, are taking on metropolitan profiles—with middle-aged Minnesotans leaving for less densely-populated areas. The pattern is most prevalent in the southwest part of the state, around cities such as Willmar (Kandiyohi County), Marshall (Lyon County) and Mankato (Blue Earth County), according to Winchester.

The new study also shows that a brain gain has continued in the 30-49 age group across the rural Midwest, but at a slower pace than was found from 1990 to 2000. External forces such as housing debt and the Great Recession slowed overall migration rates, according to Winchester. The Brookings Institution reports that in 2007-2008, the U. S. migration rate was found to be the lowest since World War II.

Recent Extension research on 30- to 49-year-olds shows they are choosing rural areas for a higher quality of life, specifically citing a slower pace, the low cost of housing, and safety and security. A study of 99 newcomer households in west central Minnesota showed that the average newcomer household contributed $92,000 in economic activity to the region in 2009 and 2010.

“In rural areas, little changes make a big difference,” Winchester said.  “And these numbers certainly change the story.”

To access the study (in PDF format), visit To learn more about the brain gain in rural Minnesota, visit

The report update also generalizes the trends from Minnesota across rural America.  In the Great Plains, in particular, many counties that experienced overall population loss gained young families.

I’m a bit biased in favor of Winchester’s work, since I’m his prime Gen X demographic.  Children grow up and go away to school or find their first jobs.  The question is not why they leave, but why would anybody come back to your community?

Ben Winchester will be the keynote speaker at Southwest Regional Development Commission‘s Annual Meeting, 12 July 2012, at the Southwest Research and Outreach Center, Lamberton.


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1 Response to Brain Gain in Greater Minnesota: A Continuing Rural Success Story

  1. Pingback: Redefining the Rural Narrative - JC Shepard(dot)comJC Shepard(dot)com

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