Ask people who grew up in a small place about their history, and you’re likely to get an earful of sweet remembrances. You’re also likely to get pushback about why they left that town when they were able to — and might not ever be able to return. But many Americans do go home again.
Susy Campbell Wallace has a typical small town story. She moved away from her home in Hurricane, West Virginia, in 1982, lived abroad as a military wife and then lived in several other states. She returned to the Mountain State she loves about 20 years ago and now is happily staying put.
Living a simpler life in a small town brings a sense of belonging she didn’t find elsewhere.
“I feel it is grounding to return home,” says Wallace. “Most people have been here for years. Even when many leave, they usually still call this home. Most everyone knows each other here. In a way, it’s kind of like family. Or Mayberry.”
Small Town USA
“Living in a small town … is like living in a large family of rather uncongenial relations,” says Joyce Dennys in her novel “Henrietta Sees It Though.” “Sometimes it’s fun, and sometimes it’s perfectly awful, but it’s always good for you. People in large towns are like only children.”
Much of America is a small town, with rural areas taking up most of the total U.S. landscape. Of the 3,007 counties across the U.S., “the biggest are only a handful compared to the little counties,” notes well-known demographer William Frey. He is the Metropolitan Policy Program senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “And most aren’t faring so well,” he adds.
Counties are losing population, says Frey. “I think it’s part of the recession-related movement. Generally there has been a decline in migration overall, typically a movement away from these towns.”
Demographers who follow migration patterns, such as Stefan Rayer from the University of Florida, says that small towns often lack diversified economies, so when the major industry of the area fails and young people look for work, they typically move on.
“That’s the challenge for a lot of smaller towns,” says Rayer, who directs the Population Program in the Bureau of Economic and Business Research. “They just don’t have the available jobs that would be an attractor. Those tend to be concentrated in metro areas or smaller towns surrounding metro areas.”
How Small Towns are Faring
Population stagnation also may be a reflection of our dwindling middle class. While high-earning households are on the rise, the middle class has dipped just below 50 percent, according to a Pew Research study in December, which charted the further exaggerated income divide fueled by the Great Recession in 2007. It has not yet corrected for many.
The number of low-wage earners and those with less education are also increasing and their impact on small-town living is significant. It results in fewer revenues to draw upon and a sagging tax base that has beleaguered communities as well as states.
A Brookings Institution study noted that suburban poverty is a newfound reality: Between 2000 and 2012, poor suburban neighborhoods rose by 139 percent.
The suburban town of Inkster, Michigan (population: 24,000) is an example. Once an automative industry hamlet near Detroit, Inkster continued to flounder in the years after the government’s bailout to U.S. automakers.
Some small towns, however, are flourishing. The energy economy has boosted areas in North and South Dakota to newfound prosperity,
In August, Bloomberg Business charted in an index the 20 richest American small towns, dubbed micropolitan areas, many of them connected to recreation, new business investment and retirees. No. 1 was Summit Park, Utah (where median home income was $83,336 and median home value $485,700); that was followed by Edwards, Colorado, Jackson Wyoming/Idaho, Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts and Breckenridge, Colorado.
A June 2015 study by 24/7 Wall Street used information from the U.S. Census Bureau Community Survey and outlined the nation’s poorest small towns. It looked at a five-year window of estimated household income data from 2009 to 2013. Not surprisingly, the arc of small town poverty did not lie in one geographic area but all over the country, showcasing the demographic diversity.
No. 1 on the list was Tuskegee, Alabama, followed by Ketchikan, Alaska; Bisbee, Arizona; Helena/West Helena, Arkansas; and Clearlake, Calif.
A Value Far Beyond Economics
No matter the economic studies, the intrinsic goodness of small town life — civic engagement, faith communities, friendly neighbors, low crime and an easy commute — can make up for other superlatives, even work opportunities, that may be lacking. There is something special about small town life that makes many value it above economics as they attempt to protect regional culture, families and more broadly, a sense of regionalism that some believe is slipping away as populations shift.
Lebanon, New Hampshire, population 13,367, is ranked as the nation’s 100 top small town for 2015 by the website liveability.com. The site puts Lebanon in its number-one slot because of good schools, affordable housing and civic involvement. It also cites “natural amenities and fulfilling life experiences that you just won’t find in big cities.”
In Lebanon, notes liveability.com, city hall is in the same building as an opera house. You can walk easily from surrounding neighborhoods to the downtown area. While the New England winters make it chilly, snow skiing is possible just blocks away from the city center.
It’s the smallest city in the state.
Ken Johnson, senior demographer at the Carsey Institute and professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, studies rural migration trends. He recalled that once when he was a guest on NPR, a caller to the radio program weighed in on the fabled “Can you go home again?” question that many people ponder.
The caller recounted his experiences growing up in a small rural town. Walking home from junior high school one day, he was chewing on some candy cigarettes with some school chums and pretending to blow out the smoke in the chilly winter air, Johnson reported. By the time the young man made it back to his house that day, three people who’d seen him had called his mom to report he was smoking.
It was at that point the man made up his mind to leave, and he did when he was 18. But by the time he became a father, the same man recounted that he desperately wanted to move back home. “He liked the idea that someone was looking out for their children — which was the same reason he left.”
Added Johnson: “They can’t wait to get out of a small rural town when they are 18, but later, they come to see it’s not as bad as they thought. I’ve heard that story more than once.”
This is first in a series of articles about small towns in America.