‘Youth drain’ takes toll on Nebraska’s rural communities

By Zach Fulciniti on September 9th, 2013

A trend called “youth drain” could spell the eventual death of the rural community in Nebraska, population and agricultural experts warn.

“When young people move out of the state, they’re often taking a spouse or a small child,” said David Drozd, research coordinator for the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “There are fewer births in those communities, and schools have to consolidate because there isn’t enough population. In some cases the deaths actually exceed the births, and the population is literally dying out.”

According to experts at UNO, Nebraska’s been experiencing a “brain drain” and a decrease in youth population for the past four decades. The trend peaked during the farm crisis of the ’80s and stabilized in the ’90s, but the new century reversed it once again.

Using U.S. Census Bureau data, the Center for Public Affairs Research concluded that Nebraska experienced a net loss of college graduates older than 25 between 2005 and 2009. But between 2008 and 2010, during the Great Recession, there was a net gain for every age group except the 20 to 29 and 55 to 64 ranges. Measured again from 2009 to 2011, Nebraska experienced another net loss.

Drozd attributes these numbers to rural communities whose young people leave for higher education then leave the state completely when they graduate.

The effects of “youth drain” can be seen far and wide across rural communities in Nebraska. According to Jon Bailey of the Center for Rural Affairs, one of the negative aspects of the population trend is a decrease in volunteerism.

“Fire and rescue squads, volunteers for committees — there aren’t people to do these things,” Bailey said. “And these are public services that rural communities need.”

Bailey added that because technology reduces the labor demand for farming, young people pursue other interests and are unable to work in their own communities when they graduate.

So, he said, they leave for greener pastures.

“There is a lack of employment opportunity for these young people,” he said. “They go to school and the fields they go into aren’t available in their local communities. So they end up leaving for Lincoln, Omaha, Chicago, Kansas City and other metropolitan areas.”

Bailey also pointed to a tendency among young people — especially those from sparsely populated rural areas — to want to explore, leading them to other states. Young Nebraskans have most commonly migrated to Iowa. University of Nebraska-Lincoln history professor Tim Borstelmann, however, says that with a strong economy and understated culture, there is no reason to leave Nebraska, citing the Haymarket in Lincoln and the Century Link Convention Center in Omaha as examples of why Nebraska is a good place for young people to be.

“There is a mix of residential and commercial developments, and we are seeing growth in the Lincoln music scene,” he said. “It’s an amazing time to be in Lincoln. It’s a boom place.”

As far as solutions to the youth drain go, both Drozd and Borstelmann point to immigration. From 2000 to 2010, Nebraska’s population grew by 6.7 percent, and more than 95 percent of that growth can be attributed to minorities: Mexican, Iraqi, Somalian and Sudanese immigrants, to name a few.

“Opponents tend to confuse the issue and hide the benefits of immigration,” Borstelmann said. “But this is how you’re gonna keep culture, and the economy, vibrant.”

Drozd said that historically, immigration to Nebraska has come in two waves. Nebraska saw an influx of Europeans in the early 1900s, and Latino immigrants began arriving in large numbers in the 1990s, with the trend continuing to present day. In addition to those waves, both Lincoln and Omaha are popular refugee resettlement locations.

“Lincoln is a hub for Iraqi refugees,” Drozd said. “In Omaha, refugees come from Sudan, Somalia, and now we’re seeing them come from Burma and even the Congo.”

Refugees and immigrants help account for Nebraska’s population growth even in the face of youth drain, as well as the strength of its economy, particularly in Lincoln and Omaha. But even with what Borstelmann calls Nebraska’s “extraordinary agricultural base,” the nature of the industry and Nebraska’s largely consistent migration trends over the past century mean the youth drain question isn’t going away.

“Right now, farmers are making money,” Bailey said. “The short-term forecast is good. But agriculture is cyclical, and cycles go up and down.”

But the picture may not be as grim as population and rural community experts say. Sixty-nine percent of UNL’s 2012 graduates stayed in Nebraska after receiving their degrees.

Junior electrical engineering major John Batenhorst has no plans to leave Nebraska when he graduates. Batenhorst said electrical engineering enrollment is down at UNL, a claim supported by a 2010 American Society for Engineering Education study.

The junior from West Point said he still thinks Nebraska has something to offer young people.

“There’s a good economy, the cost of living is good,” Batenhorst said. “All the baby boomers are retiring, so employers are gonna need engineers.”

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