W4001: Social, Economic and Environmental Causes and Consequences of Demographic Change in Rural America

(Multistate Research Project)

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Rural populations are changing in both size and structure. Population change matters, but demography is not destiny. Changes in population size and characteristics affect a wide range of social and economic outcomes, but these changes are not automatic, nor mechanistic, and are mediated by institutions, local community preferences and historical and cultural legacies. Research is needed to examine the causal pathways that link population change to rural inequality, prosperity and well-being.


We propose to undertake a comprehensive analysis of current population processes affecting U.S. rural areas and provide to stakeholders policy-relevant research findings on the demographic causes and consequences of socioeconomic and environmental change. The proposed project’s work will build on output from its predecessor, W3001, which focused on demographic impacts stemming from the housing market collapse and Great Recession.


A significant portion of W3001 research focused on two topics identified by stakeholders as critical concerns: linkages between job loss and demographic change; and demographic dynamics affecting the rural housing market. In addition to work on basic demographic processes, this project is similarly designed around two, closely related topics: the interrelationships between rural population change and the prosperity of rural places; and the interrelationships between environmental shocks and stressors and the well-being of rural people, places, and institutions. Within our two broad topic areas, specific research questions will be determined, in part, by participant expertise and, in part, by group discussions with stakeholders proposed as a Year One activity.


The need as indicated by stakeholders
This committee is dedicated to addressing rural population issues that matter to policy makers, communities, and local residents. The objectives identified for this proposal come, in part, from information gathered from stakeholders during meetings, workshops, briefings, and field studies held in the past five years. We plan to continue this approach, given the emergence of new concerns on the part of stakeholders throughout the country. We will take a community-engaged approach to finalizing our specific research questions and to integrate extension educators, policy makers, and community groups into our broader research team.


The Carnegie Foundation defines community engagement as the collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (e.g., local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity. Following this paradigm, we propose to spend the first year of this project working with multiple stakeholders, sharing our research objectives and identifying specific questions within that agenda. We will work through regional centers, policy makers, and placed-based organizations to build knowledge that increases rural community capacity to respond to challenges they face.


As part of our first two annual meetings, we will hold sessions where we engage participants in discussions aimed at understanding (from the community stakeholder point of view) important demographic issues facing rural communities. Also, to address more regional and place-based concerns, we propose to work with Regional Rural Development Centers to set up focus group discussions of issues linking rural development, demographic change, and socioeconomic well-being. Committee members who attend these discussions will share summaries of their findings with other committee members electronically.


Importance of the work, and what the consequences are if it is not done
Rural residents populate every region of the country, from counties bordering suburbs to remote and isolated areas. Rural areas encompass agricultural regions as well as areas where workers depend mostly on manufacturing or tourism. They include prosperous areas with rapidly growing populations as well as chronically depressed locales experiencing population decline. Accordingly, our research plan is national in scope but employs a comparative perspective, and relies on a multidisciplinary research team located throughout the U.S. to ensure familiarity with diverse rural demographic, social, and economic settings.


Demographic change in rural America is an obvious but understudied response to economic dislocation and stressors and shocks caused by environmental change. Our research will document these linkages in the vast expanse of rural America that includes 75 percent of the nation's land area and 54 million of its residents. In so doing, we will contribute to the development of more informed policy to address the needs of rural people, places and institutions, especially as they have been affected by the recession. The key topics of this proposal: inequality, prosperity, and environmental change are at the forefront of contemporary policy considerations in rural America.


Local, regional, state and federal government agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) depend on up-to-date interpretations of population trends. Information from the proposed research will allow for faster understanding and anticipation of present and future public needs. This extends to informing decisions and judgments of direct service providers, including educational administrators, cooperative extension personnel, medical and social workers, journalists, and others influential in community affairs. For example, a school administrator will benefit from understanding the degree to which lower immigration rates mean fewer school-age children. Members of business and public utility sectors can use knowledge of demographic shifts to conduct needs assessments for their organizations and enterprises.


New demographic trends sometimes require shifts in policy recommendations for stakeholders. For instance, decreases in in-migration in response to job losses will lower demand for schools, hospitals, or family-oriented social services, depending on the changing composition of migration flows. Insights from the research proposed here will contribute to better understanding and anticipation of present and future public needs as they are influenced by changes in population size, geographic location, and socioeconomic composition.


Failure to address these issues could diminish the response capabilities of local government officials, regional economic development officers, extension personnel, and other stakeholders. It could hinder public policy efforts at the Federal and State level as well, due to the decrease in systematic knowledge of just how rural people and communities are evolving as a result of demographic change. Without knowledge of regional differences, for instance in how differential migration rates affect income inequality, policy formation may be critically misdirected, and, consequently, even exacerbate inequality.


The technical feasibility of the research
Recent W-3001 accomplishments (e.g., new policy brief series, numerous journal articles, successful grant proposals) demonstrate our ability to collaborate effectively. The group does not envision any new technical issues that would hinder the accomplishment of the proposed research objectives. Over the past five years, we have taken advantage of new communication technologies to expand our disciplinary range and more effectively interact with public and private stakeholders across the country.


Most members have extensive experience compiling and analyzing large databases, bringing together demographic and economic data from several sources and geographic scales of inquiry. Many have skills in spatial analysis of demographic data and using geographic information systems (GIS) to map and analyze population patterns. Additionally, several members will be taking advantage of qualitative skills to conduct field studies and in-depth interviews with rural community leaders and residents.


The advantages of doing the work as a multi-state effort
The multi-state framework provides a unique venue for interdisciplinary research that is both national in scope and committed to understanding the regional and local context of demographic change. A national perspective is essential for analyzing rural population issues from a policy standpoint because demographic change occurs within the framework of the nation's entire settlement system. Moreover, the national perspective permits comparative analysis of the nation's diverse regions, thereby providing information useful for modifying policies for varying social, economic, and environmental contexts.


Specific areas cannot be studied outside of their larger contexts. Regions are as interrelated as are rural, suburban and urban areas. Our committee's expanded membership has widened the geographic scope of our research beyond the traditional focus we have had on the rural West. Our national-level research activities are now informed by in-depth knowledge of regions as diverse as the northern Great Plains, the Pacific Northwest, the upper Great Lakes, the Mississippi Delta, and New England.


The multi-state approach allows each researcher to take advantage of the unique and diverse skills of all committee members and their affiliated institutions, including departments and population centers at Cornell, Connecticut, Kansas State, Michigan Tech, Mississippi State, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, Texas-San Antonio, Utah State, Wisconsin, and Middlebury College. Geographers with USDA's Economic Research Service and elsewhere provide the research committee with excellent geographic information systems capabilities. Committee members from Cornell, Utah State, and Wisconsin, among others, have formal Extension responsibilities, and their expertise provides the group with a solid understanding of stakeholder issues and the planning requirements of state, county and regional agencies. Finally, the group enjoys excellent relations with professionals at the U.S. Census Bureau and other federal data centers.


What the likely impacts will be from successfully completing the work
The demographic analysis undertaken by this committee provides information about the social and economic context within which public policy operates in our changing rural society. Mapping and explaining regional differences in population processes during the Great Recession will draw attention to the ways in which demographic impacts play out unevenly and how economic decline and recovery have been experienced differently across various segments of the nonmetropolitan population, hitting historically disadvantaged groups hardest.


The project's primary goal continues to be the production of this type of policy-relevant research that informs users about current demographic trends and their implications for rural policy. We aim for broad readership among policy makers and plan to continue our strong record of outreach, that recently has included briefings to the White House Council of Economic Advisors, several Congressional offices, Governors' staff and task forces, the National Academies of Science, the Federal Reserve Bank, several USDA agencies, the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy, and many state and local organizations. Our work does not evaluate the operation of particular public policies or practices, but it does provide essential contextual information that helps policymakers decide where public intervention is most needed, and the alternative forms such actions might take.

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