W2001: Population Dynamics and Change: Aging, Ethnicity and Land Use Change in Rural Communities
Statement of Issues and JustificationThrough a comprehensive, collaborative study of rural population change, members of the W-1001 multi-state project (this proposal's predecessor) identified and reported on a wide range of interrelated, demographic trends affecting rural America (Kandel and Brown, 2006). Among the many topics explored, three critical areas emerged as particularly salient for understanding the changing character of rural people and places, and also as critical factors affecting rural policy. Accordingly, we the multi-state research committee W1001, have targeted the following three issues for in-depth analysis during the next five years. First, the aging of the U.S. population affects rural areas in unique and geographically diverse ways, with increasing rates of retirement migration affecting some areas and aging-in-place occurring elsewhere. Second, dramatic changes in the racial and ethnic composition of rural places has created challenges and opportunities for rural communities, and prompts demands for new research on economic vulnerability, on the migrant absorption process, and on the local capacity of rural areas to improve individual and household well-being. Third, rapid population growth along the urban-rural periphery and in high amenity areas calls for a new look at land use patterns and the social conflicts that arise in communities experiencing increasing demographic size and diversity. We propose collaborative research targeting these three topics that will take advantage of our combined areas of expertise, maximize the benefits of the multi-state framework, and address the concerns most often expressed by rural development policymakers and leaders in communities affected by changing population size and composition.
Need as indicated by stakeholders
Our choice of research topics comes in large part from information gathered from stakeholders during professional meetings, workshops, briefings, and informal visits to rural areas and regions undergoing population change. The concerns expressed in these settings mirror CSREES policy priorities to "support increased economic opportunities and improved quality of life in rural America." Specifically, our research will fulfill CSREES strategic goals by helping identify social and economic issues facing rural communities as rural communities adjust to broad forces affecting their futures, such as social welfare policy, immigration reform, an aging population, and rapid population growth in communities near major cities.
First, calls for research on aging are increasing as the baby boom generation approaches retirement. A recent survey of nearly 1,800 towns, counties, and municipalities found that less than half have begun preparing for the inevitable social and economic shifts brought on by aging (National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, 2006). The Western Governors' Association cites rural health improvements as a policy priority, largely due to an increasing elderly population (Western Governors Association, 2004). Stakeholders from Great Plains and Corn Belt communities need help providing health care and other services to an increasingly isolated, aging-in-place population. At the same time, stakeholders in the Rocky Mountain West and other high-amenity destinations need information and analysis to weigh the costs and benefits of rapid, elderly in-migration.
Second, the migration of Latinos and other ethnic groups has affected the character and geography of rural economic vulnerability over the past two decades. Poverty in rural America continues to be geographically clustered in ways that reflect historical patterns of racial and ethnic settlement, but questions regarding individual and household well-being, social and economic integration, and civic engagement are coming from new areas as well. New residents often revitalize small towns economically and demographically, yet their presence signals changes in local economic structure that can be detrimental to some groups (Vias and Nelson 2006). Moreover, the economic, civic, and social incorporation of foreign-born newcomers is critical for rural communities whose fortunes will revolve to no small measure around the labor market outcomes of U.S. born second generation immigrants. Our proposed research addresses the needs expressed by stakeholders to better understand the challenges and opportunities that come with increasing demographic diversity.
Third, the conversion of farmland to urban uses, along with broader environmental consequences resulting from population growth and redistribution, raise public concerns on many fronts. Stakeholders need analysis of land-use impacts to help balance competing interests, allowing efficient use of rural land while protecting rural amenities. Rural amenities threatened by rapid housing and infrastructure development include local food supplies, air and water quality, natural resource-related jobs, and quality of life. Insights into the impacts of population change help public agencies and civic groups efficiently support local management efforts and develop strategies tailored to their individual communities.
Importance of the work, and what the consequences are if it is not done
Findings, insights, and implications of this research will help in planning, policy-making and program assessments that support sustainable rural communities and promote residents' quality of life. Local, regional, state and federal government and non-governmental organization personnel depend not only on current descriptive information on population trends but also on interpretations of such trends. Different demographic trends can sometimes result in contradictory policy recommendations for stakeholders. For instance, immigration creates demands for schools and other family-oriented social services, while retirement migration increases the demand for a much different combination of public and private services, including health care, shopping, recreation and other leisure activities. There is a need to better understand the interplay between these two trends: to what extent are immigrants to rural places attracted by the jobs produced by aging boomers and others moving to retirement destinations? Such information contributes 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.
Beyond general guidance for strategic decisions and program design and administration, the need for demographic analysis extends to informing decisions and judgments of direct service providers. These include educational administrators, cooperative extension personnel, law enforcement personnel, medical and welfare workers, journalists, clergy, and others influential in community affairs. Overlapping with such efforts are members of business and public utility sectors that make key contributions to civic well-being and adapt to demographic shifts using market data, needs assessments, and projections to plan and manage their organizations and enterprises. Demographic analysis is also critical for local development planning, and in particular for decisions related to land use, infrastructure, and construction permitting. As a result, we will continue our interaction with established stakeholder groups. Our research agenda will be guided in large part by their input. Summary materials outlined below will be developed and presentations made to help public and private policymakers and decision makers interpret our finding and assess implications for action in their own contexts.
Failure to address these issues as a team working together under the committee's auspices would decrease the contribution we hope to make to a basic understanding of the causes and consequences of recent rural population growth, geographic redistribution, and compositional change. It could hinder public policy efforts at the Federal and State level, due to the decrease in systematic knowledge of just how rural people and communities-and the challenges they face-are evolving as a result of demographic change. Without knowledge about large regional differences, policy formation may be critically misdirected. Our emphasis on the geographic variation of demographic impacts and our efforts to disseminate our findings should improve the response capabilities of local government officials, regional economic development officers, extension personnel, and other stakeholders. Our case studies will augment the proposed national level analyses and provide important information on local variation in responses to these population changes. Without our study, much of the information about these differences would not be known.
Technical feasibility of the research
The group does not envision any major technical issues that would hinder the investigation of the research objectives outlined below. Recent W-1001 accomplishments, including a book publication, policy briefs, a successful policy-oriented conference in Washington DC, numerous journal articles and presentations, and successful grant proposals, demonstrate our ability to collaborate effectively. Focusing our efforts on three policy-relevant research areas maximizes the benefits of working together in the multi-state framework. The disciplinary range of participants has expanded and linkages with public and private stakeholders have also grown and diversified geographically.
The group maintains substantial expertise in both quantitative and qualitative research methods. Most members have extensive experience compiling and analyzing large databases, bringing together demographic and economic data from several sources and geographic scales of inquiry. Similarly, we have a unique set of qualitative skills in interviewing rural community leaders and residents. We are poised to incorporate new data from the American Community Survey, available with full U.S. coverage for the first time in 2007, into the proposed research agenda.
Advantages of the multi-state approach
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 project combining national and regional frames of reference is essential for analyzing rural population issues from a policy perspective because demographic change occurs within the framework of the nation's entire settlement system. Specific areas cannot be studied outside of their larger contexts. Regions are interrelated as are rural, suburban and urban areas. We continue a long-term emphasis on demographic change in the rural West, in part because of the location of several project members whose interests are most central to Western issues. The West is the fastest growing region of the U.S. and is often in the forefront of debates over land-use change, economic dislocation, and conflicts among different demographic groups. However, our committee's expanded membership during the last five years has widened the geographic scope of our research considerably. Our national-level research activities are now informed by in-depth knowledge of regions as diverse as the northern Great Plains, 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 institutes, including departments and population centers at University of Connecticut, Cornell University, University of Idaho, Kansas State University, University of Missouri, University of Montana, North Dakota State University, Texas A&M University, Utah State University, Washington State University, University of Wisconsin, and Middlebury College and Loyola University-Chicago. Geographers with USDA's Economic Research Service and elsewhere provide the research committee with excellent geographic information systems capabilities. Committee members from Cornell University, North Dakota State University, Utah State University, Washington State University and CSREES, 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.
The likely impacts from completion of the work
The project's goal continues to be the production of policy-relevant research that informs users about current and projected rural demographic trends and issues, and their implications for public policy. We aim for broad readership among rural stakeholders and policy makers. Without the inclusion of this outreach effort, our research loses its power. Members of W-1001 received requests for information from, or made briefings to, the U.S. House Agriculture Committee; the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, the offices of Senators Obama, Dorgan and Durbin, and Congressmen Hastert, Davis, Kirk, and Schakowsky; the Kansas, New York, North Dakota and Illinois Legislatures; USDA's Rural Development mission area; Kids Count; the Brookings Institution; the National Committee on Rural Health; the Utah Public Health Association and the Utah Population Projections Committee; the Western Governors' Association; the New York Legislative Commission on Rural Resources; New York State Office for the Aging; the State Society on Aging of New York; the Association for Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research; and the American Association of Retired Persons.
The proposed research does not evaluate the operation of particular public policies or practices. Rather, it provides information about the social and economic context within which public policy operates in our changing rural society. For example, information on population aging focuses attention to changing service needs as older persons age in place. Analyses of changing income sources invariably draws attention to growing and declining industries. As a decreasing share of rural residents continue to be employed in the agricultural sector, demographic research implies that rural economic development must consider a broader range of non-agricultural industries. Demographic expansion into rural territory raises concerns about farm land protection and growth management. This project's research provides contextual information that will help policymakers decide where public intervention is most needed, and the alternative forms such actions might take.
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