Are Any Small Towns Flourishing?

We hear and read how the very largest cities are growing, attractive places for millennials and just about anyone who is not of retirement age. The story is that the big cities have had almost all the economic gains of the last decade or so, while the economic life has been sucked out of small towns and rural areas.

The images above are what seem to be in many minds today — the vibrant big city versus the dying countryside.

Yet, we are in a digital age when everyone is connected to everyone else on the globe, thanks to the Internet. Why hasn’t this theory of economic potential from the Internet been true for the countryside?

Well, it turns out that it is true. Those rural areas that do in fact have widespread access to the Internet are flourishing. These towns with broadband are exemplary, but unfortunately not the majority of towns.

Professor Roberto Gallardo of Purdue’s Purdue Center for Regional Development has dug deep into the data about broadband and growth. The results have recently been published in an article that Robert Bell and I helped write. You can see it below.

So, the implication of the image above is half right — this is a life-or-death issue for many small towns. The hopeful note is that those with broadband and the wisdom to use it for quality of life will not die in this century.

© 2018 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved


[This article is republished from the Daily Yonder , a non-profit media organization that specializes in rural trends and thus filling the vacuum of news coverage about the countryside.]

When It Comes to Broadband, Millennials Vote with Their Feet

By Roberto Gallardo — Robert Bell — Norman Jacknis

April 11, 2018

When they live in remote rural areas, millennials are more likely to reside in a county that has better digital access. The findings could indicate that the digital economy is helping decentralize the economy, not just clustering economic change in the cities that are already the largest.

Sources: USDA; Pew Research; US Census Bureau; Purdue Center for Regional Development This graph shows that the number of Millennials and Gen Xers living in the nation’s most rural counties is on the increase in counties with a low “digital divide index.” The graph splits the population in “noncore” (or rural) counties into three different generations. Then, within each generation, the graph looks at population change based on the Digital Divide Index. The index measures the digital divide using two sets of criteria, one that looks at the availability and adoption of broadband and another set that looks at socio-economic factors such as income and education levels that affect broadband use. Counties are split into five groups or quintiles based on the digital divide index, with group №1 (orange) having the most access and №5 (green) having the lowest.

Cities are the future and the countryside is doomed, as far as population growth, jobs, culture and lifestyle are concerned. Right?

Certainly, that is the mainstream view expressed by analysts at organizations such as Brookings. This type of analysis says the “clustering” of business that occurred during the industrial age will only accelerate as the digital economy takes hold. This argument says digital economies will only deepen and accelerate the competitive advantage that cities have always had in modern times.

But other pundits and researchers argue that the digital age will result in “decentralization” and a more level playing field between urban and rural. Digital technologies are insensitive to location and distance and potentially offer workers a much greater range of opportunities than ever before.

The real question is whether a rural decline is inevitable or if the digital economy has characteristics that are already starting to write a different story for rural America. We have recently completed research that suggests it is.

Millennial Trends

While metro areas still capture the majority of new jobs and population gains, there is some anecdotal evidence pointing in a different direction. Consider a CBS article that notes how, due to high housing costs, horrible traffic, and terrible work-life balances, Bend, Oregon, is seeing an influx of teleworkers from Silicon Valley. The New York Times has reported on the sudden influx of escapees from the Valley that is transforming Reno, Nevada — for good or ill, it is not yet clear.

Likewise, a Fortune article argued that “millennials are about to leave cities in droves” and the Telegraph mentioned “there is a great exodus going on from cities” in addition to Time magazine reporting that the millennial population of certain U.S. cities has peaked.

Why millennials? Well, dubbed the first digital-native generation, their migration patterns could indicate the beginning of a digital age-related decentralization.

An Age-Based Look at Population Patterns

In search of insight, we looked at population change among the three generations that make up the entire country’s workforce: millennials, generation X, and baby boomers.

First, we defined each generation. Table 1 shows the age ranges of each generation according to the Pew Research Center, both in 2010 and 2016, as well as the age categories used to measure each generation. While not an exact match, categories are consistent across years and geographies.

In addition to looking at generations, we used the Office of Management core-based typology to control by county type (metropolitan, small city [micropolitan], and rural [noncore]). To factor in the influence of digital access affects local economies, we used the Digital Divide Index. The DDI, developed by the Purdue Center for Regional Development, ranges from zero to 100. The higher the score, the higher the digital divide. There are two components to the Digital Divide Index: 1) broadband infrastructure/adoption and 2) socioeconomic characteristics known to affect technology adoption.

Looking at overall trends, it does look like the digital age is not having a decentralization effect. To the contrary, according to data from the economic modeling service Emsi, the U.S. added 19.4 million jobs between 2010 and 2016. Of these, 94.6 percent were located in metropolitan counties compared to only 1.6 percent in rural counties.

Population growth tells a similar story. Virtually the entire growth in U.S. population of 14.4 million between 2010 and 2016 occurred in metropolitan counties, according to the Census Bureau. The graph below (Figure 1) shows the total population change overall and by generation and county type. As expected, the number of baby boomers (far right side of the graph) is falling across all county types while millennials and generation x (middle two sets of bars) are growing only in metro counties.

But there is a different story. When looking at only rural counties (what the OMB classification system calls “noncore”) divided into five equal groups or quintiles based on their digital divide (1 = lowest divide while 5 = highest divide), the figure at the very top of this article shows that rural counties experienced an increase in millennials where the digital divide was lowest. (The millennial population grew by 2.3 percent in rural counties where the digital divide was the lowest.) Important to note is that this same pattern occurs in metropolitan and small city counties as well.

Impact on the “Really Rural” County

“Urban” and “rural” can be tricky terms when it comes to demographics. The Census Bureau reports that 80% of the population lives in urban areas. Seventy-five percent of those “urban” areas, however, are actually small towns with populations of under 20,000. They are often geographically large, with a population density that falls off rapidly once you leave the center of town.

On the other hand, some rural counties are adjacent to metro areas and may benefit disproportionately from their location or even be considered metropolitan due to their commuting patterns. Because of this, we turned to another typology developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service that groups counties into nine types ranging from large metro areas to medium size counties adjacent to metro areas to small counties not adjacent to metro areas.

Figure 3 (below) shows counties considered completely rural or with an urban population of less than 2,500, not adjacent to a metro area. Among these counties, about 420 in total, those with the lowest digital divide experienced a 13.5 percent increase in millennials between 2010 and 2016. In other words, in the nation’s “most rural” counties, the millennial population increased significantly when those counties had better broadband access.

Sources: USDA; Pew Research; US Census Bureau; Purdue Center for Regional Development. This graph shows population change by generation and “DDI” quintile in the nation’s most rural counties (rural counties that are farthest from metropolitan areas). In rural counties with the best digital access (a low digital divide index), the number of Millennials and Gen Xers increased.

The New Connected Countryside: A Work in Progress

To conclude, if you just look at overall numbers, our population seems to be behaving just like they did in the industrial age — moving to cities where jobs and people are concentrated. Rural areas that lag in broadband connectivity and digital literacy will continue to suffer from these old trends.

However, the digital age is young. Its full effects are still to be felt. Remember it took several decades for electricity or the automobile to revolutionize society. Besides, areas outside metro areas lag in broadband connectivity and digital literacy, limiting their potential to leverage the technology to affect their quality of life, potentially reversing migration trends.

Whether or not decentralization will take place remains to be seen. What is clear though is that (while other factors are having an impact, as well) any community attempting to retain or attract millennials need to address their digital divide, both in terms of broadband access and adoption/use.

In other words, our data analysis suggests that if a rural area has widely available and adopted broadband, it can start to successfully attract or retain millennials.

Roberto Gallardo is assistant director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development and a senior fellow at the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder. Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum. Norman Jacknis is a senior fellow at the Intelligent Community Forum and on the faculty of Columbia University.

Horseless Carriages And Taxes

I noticed that the White House unveiled today its proposal for many changes in US taxes. I don’t normally comment on current political controversies and am not going to do so now, whatever my private views are on the policies.

But, as someone with an interest in 21st century technology, I did take notice of one thing about the proposal that I’ll comment on– admittedly something not as important as other aspects of the plan, but something that seems so outdated.

It is another example of how, for all the talk about technology and change, far too many people – especially public officials – are still subject to what the media expert Marshall McLuhan called the “horseless carriage syndrome”. When automobiles first getting popular a hundred years ago, they were seen as carriages with a motor instead of a horse. 

Only much later did everyone realize that the automobile made possible a different world, including massive suburbanization, increased mobility for all generations, McDonald’s and drive-ins (for a couple of decades anyway), etc. Cars were really more than motorized, instead of horse-driven, carriages.

Similarly, tech is more than the sometime automation of traditional ways of doing things. Which brings me back to taxes.

In pursuit of a goal of simplifying the tax system, the White House proposed today to reduce the number of tax brackets from seven to three. 
(This image is from the NY Times.)

And that brings me to a question I have previously asked: why do we still have these tables of brackets that determine how much income tax we’re supposed to pay?

The continued use of tax brackets is just another example of horseless carriage thinking by public officials because it perpetuates an outmoded and unnecessary way of doing things.

In addition to being backward, brackets cause distortions in the way people make economic decisions so as to avoid getting kicked in a higher tax bracket.

But we no longer have to live in a world limited to paper-based tables.  Assuming that we don’t go to a completely flat single percentage tax – and even the White House today doesn’t propose that – there is nothing in a progressive tax that should require the use of brackets. Instead, a simple system could be based on a formula which would eliminate the negative impacts of bracket-avoiding behavior that critics of progressive taxation point to.

And all it would to implement this is an app on our phones or the web. An app could the most basic flat tax formula, like “TaxOwed = m * TaxableIncome” where m is some percentage. It could also obviously handle more complicated versions for   progressive taxes, like logarithmic or exponential formulas.

No matter the formula, we’re not talking about much computing power nor a very complicated app to build. There are tens of thousands of coders who could finish this app in an afternoon.

Again, the reduction of tax brackets from 7 to 3 is not among the big issues of the proposed tax changes. But maybe we’d also get better tax policies on the big issues from both parties if public officials could also reform and modernize their thinking – and realize we’re all in the digital age now.

[OK, I’m off my soapbox now 😉 ]

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved