Most dangerous migrants are the ones leaving our communities

PHOTO: Jason Paris, Flickr CC-BY

In 2010 I wrote an article entitled “Wanted: Young People.” It was about the 2010 U.S. Census and what it could tell us about the towns and counties of northeastern Minnesota. 

Ten years ago, data showed that our economic problems stemmed from a lack of people to support existing business and community institutions. It wasn’t that our population was cratering; it was that our demographics contributed to an increasingly rigid community that failed to welcome young people, their families, and their ideas to live and spend money here.

More specifically, we saw an enormous drop in a more obscure stat: persons per household. Persons per household tells you whether you are a community full of young families and multi-generational dwellings, or whether houses are occupied by people whose children have left.

It won’t be necessary to write another piece like that for 2020 Census data. I mean, I might, for posterity, but we already know what the numbers will say: the same exact thing. Only more so. 

We haven’t received all the precinct by precinct “deep dive” data yet, but we have a sense from county level data of what’s happening. And it’s part of a national trend.

From 2010 to 2020, previous demographic trends accelerated in rural America. From 2000 to 2010, rural America merely grew slower than the rest of the country. In the last ten years, however, the population actually declined.

It’s not just that the population is lower. It’s why. Outmigration — people moving away — is by far the largest cause of population loss.

Robert Gallardo wrote a July 21 data analysis piece for The Daily Yonder about this phenomenon.

“In fact,” writes Gallardo, “the nonmetropolitan loss matched the metropolitan gain when looking at the domestic component in both decades (confirming our math is correct).” 

It’s an old assumption that smaller families mean that when people die that there aren’t enough babies to replace them. In truth, our population is replacing itself. Not by much, but enough that we need not fear the “Children of Men” scenario where all the babies disappear. 

(Fun side fact, the science fiction movie “Children of Men,” about a world where people stop being able to have children and society grapples with the consequences, was set in the rapidly approaching 2027).

Domestic migration is now the biggest source of lost population in rural areas. We’re starting to notice it more because natural replacement is also declining, though still in positive territory. 

Quite often, you hear people say that the key to turning around a finding like this is to “keep young people here.” But no region — especially a rural region today — can honestly expect to keep all the kids. They go to college, meet spouses from North Dakota or Ohio, and away they go. Most still come back, but we’re bound to lose some. Plus we’ve been leaking oil on population for 40 years. The numbers just aren’t there.

Areas that saw population growth generally enjoyed something we haven’t seen here in northern Minnesota in 50 years, and not in significant numbers in a century: immigration. This can be domestic migration — people moving from, say, California or New York. But it often also means foreign immigration as well. 

We know from our own history that immigration is complicated and challenging, replete with social problems that no one has entirely figured out yet. Yet, I think most whose families stayed in northern Minnesota after crossing an ocean are glad they came. Our communities, and everything we love about them, exist because they did.

Concludes Gallardo in his Daily Yonder piece:

“… the international or immigration component buffered population losses in both metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas. This highlights the importance of welcoming and helping these groups assimilate into a community’s culture. Without them, population loss would have been higher coupled with the decreasing natural component and in nonmetropolitan areas, domestic migration.”

I still hear a lot of talk in our community about the dangers of those who might come here. The statistics, however, tell a different story. The most dangerous migrants to our communities are the ones leaving them behind.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. I’m sorry but in order to become a rural area welcoming of newcomers, we must do something about the blatant racism in this area. It may be ignorance, but it is running rampant. The good ol’ boys way of thinking is still an ongoing issue here. If you’re not “from here” you won’t fit it, that’s the bottom line. Until this mentality is fixed, newcomers will not be welcome and will quickly leave the area if they do try to settle down here. It’s bad. I’m from northern MN, lived all over the US and am back to live in the area for good. Nothing’s changed.

  2. I’ve seen this in my area, yes, all over the Range. The school population is about half of what it was when you graduated. You are my first child’s age, and she was in a class of about 75, though not all graduated. The school had added on some rooms. Yet the builders keep busy. Why? Because of vacation homes and retirement homes. These people add to the economy and culture in a different way. There are A LOT of job openings, many which take years of schooling. But the younger people can’t find affordable housing close enough to be part of the community. So their kids will go to school elsewhere. The parents often change jobs because it is easier to have a kid in school in the town you work in. And guess what, a slightly bigger facility pays slightly better, and the commute is shorter. More affordable housing would help, because the jobs that are open are essential jobs.

  3. Increasingly, the picture is of a population of nasty old farts who vote for trump. Does this describe a community that smart people would want to raise kids in?

  4. David Kannas says

    A great article, one that offers food for thought when one contemplates the health of the community where he or she lives. My wife and I raised five kids on the block where we have lived since 1985. Granted, we live in a big city, but our part of that big city is really a small town, and our block is a United Nations in that small town. While the city is economically vibrant and can employ its residents, it is, more importantly, welcoming. Our little block United Nations has a population of old timers like us, tech workers from other nations, people who work from home and can live anywhere, and new families with kids. That last part is what keeps the block vibrant. Over the years, we have witnessed extreme demographic changes, from lots of kids to none, then back again to where it now is. So, what’s the point here? It’s that welcoming the new families, no matter where they come from. They all add to the vibrancy of our block in this big city. The same should be true for northeastern MN and everywhere.

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