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“Brain drain” remains one of the biggest concerns facing America’s rural regions.  For decades, the “best and brightest” of rural America have left their homes for the bright lights of the big city.  In response, many small towns and states have pursued strategies to stem brain drain and encourage rural residents to consider remaining in their hometowns.   A new study from the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service takes a new look at the “brain drain” issue and offers a more nuanced look at the challenges facing depopulating rural regions.

The researchers sought to understand what made people leave and/or return to their rural hometowns.  They undertook the research by attending high school reunions where they could interview people who had stayed, left, or returned to their home communities.  The results aren’t totally surprising—very few single and footloose twenty-somethings have strong interest in returning to their rural roots.  However, when they marry and start to raise a family, this calculus changes and return is more likely.

The basic calculus for potential return rural migrants is simple:  they know that they will benefit from closer connections to family and long-time friends, but also expect that they will make career and income sacrifices.  As they say, there is no free lunch.  Returnees typically waited until a good job opened up, or just decided to “bite the bullet” and create their own career or employment opportunities.

One final interesting finding underlines the importance of returnees to the health of rural America.   When they leave for the city, “the best and the brightest” leave a void in their hometowns.  But, when they return, they bring families who fill schools, purchase local goods and services, and invest in their regions.  They also bring new skills and talents developed in the early parts of their careers, assuming community leadership positions and helping to build a better place.  This further suggests that rural regions should move to a more sophisticated strategy that moves beyond bemoaning brain drain and instead focuses on how best to sell their regions to the large base of potential thirty-something returnees.

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