Geographers study return migration to rural towns
“Home is a place you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to.”
— John Ed Pearce
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer
Christiane von Reichert, a UM professor of geography, spends her summers at high school reunions — and none of them her own.
As she mingles among strangers at the festivities, she asks reunion-goers about where they live. Some chose to remain in their hometowns. Others decided to move away permanently. Others moved back to the small, rural communities where they grew up.
Von Reichert’s current research hones in on “return migration,” a nationwide examination of those who return to rural communities with dwindling populations, especially those areas without comfortable climates and natural amenities such as mountains, oceans or lakes. She’s keenly interested in why people choose to move back to where they grew up, and she’s logged thousands of miles in her car to visit these remote locations and query people about their geographical life choices after high school.
Existing research shows the departure of younger, better-educated people from remote communities is a persistent problem nationwide. The community loses not only its future parents and the vibrancy of a younger generation, but it also experiences a decline in leadership capacity as many of the risk takers and innovators go elsewhere.
Von Reichert’s research sets out to uncover what brings people back and how return migrants replenish their communities and improve the economic health of declining rural places. The researcher hopes to find some answers to questions that may help the rural communities prosper and grow. Is there something small communities can do to bring people back? Do communities have an influence on making themselves more attractive to potential returnees?
The project builds on von Reichert’s earlier research on return migration to Montana. The hypothesis promoted by one migration researcher — that people move back to where they come from because they somehow failed where they went — “didn’t sit right with me,” von Reichert says.
With the support of a $2,500 grant from UM’s O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West, she did a study in Montana, which became the pilot study for her current project. She went to more than a dozen high school reunions, visiting communities such as Plains, Colstrip, Glasgow, Three Forks, Chinook, Polson, Fort Benton and Lewistown, as well as Hamilton, Missoula, Billings, Great Falls and Helena.
During the pilot study, attendees told her they returned to their hometowns because they want their children to know their grandparents, attend good schools and live in a small community with a familiar landscape.
Other people von Reichert spoke with said they felt they could make a bigger difference in their smaller towns and cities. “These people made moves that were very deliberate,” she says. “They weren’t failures. My observations from that summer were that these return migrants could not only bring bodies back but energies, too.”
In 2006, after discussions with John Cromartie and Robert Gibbs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, Von Reichert and her collaborators wrote a grant proposal to study return migration to rural communities on a national level. They submitted it to the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service and received a $310,000 grant for three years.
Along with geography research assistant Ryan Arthun, they’ve become experts of sorts at high school reunions.
By interviewing people at their 10-, 20- and 30-year high school reunions, the researchers encounter people from the same community who’ve taken different life paths. The reunion-goers came to see former classmates and reconnect with their childhoods, but they also were willing to take five to 15 minutes to talk about their rationales for where they live.
“We’re basically at their party and we’re taking their time when they’ve come to interact with their classmates,” says von Reichert. “It is quite remarkable how generous many were with their time.”
Von Reichert says people who come to the class reunions often are in reflective moods and are re-evaluating their commitments to their home communities and life choices. Added Arthun: “At the high school reunions, we’re catching people when they are most nostalgic. They all went to school together and it’s a tight group. But once you get into the flow of the conversations, you’re typically passed along from group to group.”
The researchers say each class reunion is different depending on the people in attendance, the closeness of the class and its receptivity to outsiders. On average, they have about 15 interviews for each community they visit. “There isn’t a template,” von Reichert says. “Each event is different.”
Again, the most pronounced reason for return migration to these communities has been family. “The theme we heard consistently was the family ties, and that they know the community,” von Reichert says. “A lot of people have given up economic opportunities for the benefit of their children and also their parents. The extent to which people are willing to give up opportunities for their kin is amazing.”
People leave cities and move back to small hometowns because “they want their children to grow up with a certain type of freedom that fosters independence,” von Reichert says. “The phrase they use is, ‘My kids can ride their bikes.’ They want them to be able to explore, while also feeling the community watches out for them and will rein them in if they become too mischievous.”
She also discovered that some of the people who migrated back home after high school are key players in their communities. They are eager to add vibrancy to the social and economic amenities that lured them back. They’re civically engaged in schools and churches and volunteer as coaches and firefighters.
The UM geographers found that momentum is another large factor in return migration. Once four or five families from the same class return, it makes it easier for others to follow because they don’t feel isolated. In their interviews, they found people who discuss moving back home almost every year and who are constantly looking for jobs in their home communities. Others have the desire but need to be in a big city because of their specific jobs as pilots, lawyers, surgeons and similar occupations. Those who return home often are self-employed or find work in schools, local government or the power company, for instance.
Typically, a person’s or couple’s decision about where to live hinges on where to raise their children. But ties to parents, siblings and other relatives are important, too. People whose parents never moved have a better chance of moving back, von Reichert says.
Last summer, the researchers attended 17 high school reunions in 13 communities, including places in Montana, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oregon, Wyoming, Kansas and West Virginia.
Starting from scratch, von Reichert took a database of about 26,000 schools and filtered it until she had it narrowed to several thousand schools in roughly 1,000 counties that fit the study-area criteria. Arthun then gathered information about class reunions by calling schools and newspapers in almost 300 communities.
One thing he found was that in small towns, social networking sites such as Facebook and Classmates are less important than more traditional social networks. For example, the first school that Arthun called told him to call the bartender at a local North Dakota bar for all the reunion information. “Call Fuzzy at the Green Lantern,” he was advised.
For community leaders, von Reichert’s research can help promote key aspects that made return migrants more inclined to live there, including strong schools, abundant playgrounds, public pools and accessible bike paths.
While jobs are important to return migrants, the research shows that there are other quality-of-life issues that people consider crucial when they decide where to raise their children. These returnees are often willing to work hard to find or create the employment opportunity that will allow them to meet these quality of life goals.
As a result, her research may help rural communities trumpet their assets, including safety, drug-free schools and a lack of traffic congestion, which appeal to former residents who now live in big cities. These factors can help revitalize these communities, she says. “I feel communities overlook their potential appeal to families with children.”
Next summer, the geographers will travel to more rural towns in Iowa, Texas, New Mexico and other locales. The final year of the research project will be devoted to condensing information based on the transcripts of those who agreed to be interviewed and to summarizing the findings.
The research will result in papers for professional and general audiences. Von Reichert also would like to produce policy briefs for small communities to help them promote their assets.
Von Reichert received her doctorate in 1992 from the University of Idaho and is originally from northern Bavaria in Germany. Coming from a town of about 3,000, she says, “My heart is in small towns.”
— By Pamela J. Podger
|Research on the road: Christiane von Reichert and Ryan Arthun (bottom) saw a lot of small-town main streets and parade floats during their visits to many class reunions last summer. They traveled with campers because hotels were generally booked.