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Greater Minnesota: How we're changing

This map of Minnesota indicates how the counties are classified: yellow is “entirely rural,” green is “town/rural mix,” light blue is “urban/town/rural mix,” and dark blue is “entirely urban.” Special to the Pine Journal

We all carry mental maps of Minnesota in our heads. Many of us think of ourselves as living in Greater Minnesota, the term for all communities located outside of the Twin Cities metro and accounting for 40 percent of the state's population. In our political life, we are frequently branded as "rural." But it's a lot more complicated than that!

Earlier this year, our state's demographic center published a report that helps clarify the complex relationships among Greater Minnesota counties, cities and towns of all sizes. Remarkably innovative, they studied not just where people live but the relationships among cities and towns — how people live and work across city and county boundaries. They group us as living in urban, large town, small town, and rural communities, based on both population size (the traditional measure) and proximity to other communities.

For example, in northeastern Minnesota, some counties are considered entirely rural (for instance, Aitkin and Cook) because few commute to work across county lines. St. Louis, Carlton and Pine are urban/town/rural mixes, while Lake and Itasca are considered town/rural. From my home just north of Cromwell, I can see how this makes sense. Many of my neighbors on the western end of Carlton County commute to Cloquet or Moose Lake or even Duluth, often to work in healthcare or retail. Others commute to constructions jobs in the larger region. People living in a tiny city like Cromwell have more work options than a those in a similarly sized town in Aitkin, Mahnomen or Lake of the Woods counties.

I found some of the study's findings discouraging. Residents of small town and rural Minnesota communities are twice as likely to be 80 years or older, shares that will continue to rise. Rural, small town and large town residents who work full-time are two or more times more likely to live in poverty than urban residents who do so. Entirely rural counties lost population, both from lower birth rates and negative net migration, a trend the authors don't see abating.

The slow depopulation of entirely rural counties is due to mechanization of agriculture and forestry, meaning that fewer farmers can produce more output, and the relatively low rates of new companies setting up shop and paying good wages. Fortunately, in our area anyway, the public sector is a relatively stable employer, offering school, county transportation and public safety jobs, among others. Our rural hospitals, nursing and assisted-living homes, and doctors' offices provide a mix of work opportunities too, though nationally rural hospitals are declining in number and in Minnesota, some are downsizing the services that they offer (e.g. obstetrics).

From my own research, I can add a few insights. Some rural areas of Minnesota, mostly in the northern parts of the state, offer excellent opportunities for recreation. Besides stoking our tourism industry, they attract young retirees (55 to 70) who want to enjoy pristine beauty and recreational opportunities. Colleagues of mine did a national study that found substantial evidence for this trend. And not just higher income retirees. Many Michigan auto workers have moved to the Upper Peninsula, for instance. After age 70, there's a reverse migration back to metro areas, perhaps because grown children and grandchildren live there and there's better access to specialized health care.

Another is that some younger people, with and without kids, choose to move back to their home regions after schooling in larger cities or in mid-career. I found this in my study of Minnesota artists — a net migration out of the Twin Cities metro for artists aged 33-44 and for those over 65, and an equivalent gain for the rest of the state. Why? Because many artists, including musicians and writers, have established gallery representation, may travel to perform, or publish through far-away presses. They may prefer roomy, affordable space, like old farmhouses, to work in.

A University of Minnesota study of net migration 2000-2010 in MInnesota by Hart and Lundberg found that Aitkin County lost more than 33 percent of its 20- to 29-year-olds over the decade, probably to pursue higher education or jobs. But Aitkin enjoyed a substantial in-migration of people between the ages of 30 and 70. Particularly notable were large numbers of newcomers between the ages of 55 and 69, including people retiring to winterized cabins. Aitkin also gained among those aged 30-44 and 10-14: young couples with children moving in for jobs in teaching, health care and services.

The data that state demographers use comes from the American Community Survey, an annual 1 percent survey of the U.S. population. It replaces the "long form" survey that used to be part of the 10-year census. Recently a friend of mine asked me, "I got this survey from the government. It says it's important. Do I have to fill it out?!" "Yes!" I said. "It's critical for helping us understand new trends and what's going on. Please do respond!"