This story is part of the State of Change project, produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network.
Across the West, more young people are moving out of rural communities than in. In every decade since 1980, most rural counties in the 11 Western states lost 20-somethings, without an influx of other young adults to make up for the loss, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau migration data by the Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics. A few managed to attract young people with the lure of some nearby metro area like Albuquerque or Denver, or a roaring tourism industry like Jackson Hole, Wyoming, but the undeniable trend has been a slow march to cities, where, especially in the West, jobs and people are increasingly concentrated.
In New Mexico, all but two rural counties have lost far more 20-somethings than they’ve gained since 1990. Tiny Harding and Catron counties led the state, losing people in their 20s at the fastest rate during the early 2000s. Only Roosevelt and Curry counties attracted people in their 20s during that time. The trend for 30-somethings in New Mexico is more mixed; more than 200 people in their 30s moved to Union County in northeast New Mexico since 2000, for instance, but hundreds of 30-somethings moved out of Socorro and Roosevelt counties.
Population Change from Migration by Age and Decade
This exodus is not just a Western problem; the USDA’s Economic Research Service says a record number of rural counties across the U.S. lost population since 2010. It’s a function both of young people seeking education and trying to keep up with a changing job landscape, said Megan Lawson, an economist with Headwaters Economics who tracks migration trends across rural counties in the West. Not only has mechanization reduced the number of people needed to work traditional rural jobs like farming and mining, Lawson said, but new jobs haven’t emerged to replace them. Jobs in the fastest-growing industries in the West — health care, real estate and tech — are cropping up mostly in densely populated areas.
If viability for small towns in the rural West depends in part on cultivating the next generation of local workers and leaders, or on a town’s ability to attract new people to fill those roles, understanding why young people choose to move is particularly important. “You really need a representation from all these different life stages,” Lawson said. “When (a community) gets too lopsided on one end or another, you really lose some of the economic opportunity and the contributions that these different ages bring.” Attracting a new generation of young people could be one answer to reversing the slow bleed of population in some rural places, though simply attracting young people isn’t a silver bullet. Bozeman succeeds at attracting young 20-somethings for college, for instance, but the town can’t hold onto them for long, Lawson said. People in their 30s continue to leave.
So, where is the young West? Where are young people actually choosing to live, and what’s drawing them there? Here’s a look at a few rural communities of all sizes -from tiny Camas County, Idaho, to booming Franklin County, Washington — that are attracting young people in surprising ways.
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Originally written by Leah Todd from Solutions Journalism Network