Prospects For Reversing Rural PA’s Population Decline

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Between 2010 to 2020, rural America saw its first-ever population decline, a trend mirrored in Pennsylvania’s rural counties. This decline was evident despite Gallup poll data from 2018 and 2020 showing considerable interest among Americans in residing in rural areas; 31% expressed this desire in December 2020.

Our research team, supported by a 2022 grant through the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, aimed to examine the factors influencing relocation decisions to rural areas and how these align with strategies to counteract population shrinkage for rural Pennsylvania.

The study utilized a cross-sectional online survey from late 2022 to early 2023. A total of 3,939 participants were sourced from Pennsylvania and ten neighboring states via Amazon Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing tool. The survey questions included those relating to place attachment; living preferences; thinking, willingness, and intentions around moving to rural areas; individual economic factors (e.g., employment) and non-economic factors (e.g., healthcare access) related to relocating to rural areas; individual perceptions of rural Pennsylvania; and choices on hypothetical incentives to move to rural areas.

Several insights emerged concerning participants’ views on relocation and their perceptions of rural Pennsylvania.

Interestingly, a sizeable fraction (ranging from 15% to 25%) of respondents from other states and nonrural areas within Pennsylvania indicated a detachment from their current locations, hinting at a potential openness to relocating. The allure of rural living held substantial (if certainly not majority) appeal, with approximately 25% of participants from both groups expressing a preference for such settings.

When delving deeper into the demographics of those who showed a heightened interest in considering a move to rural Pennsylvania, we observed distinct patterns. Married individuals, those raising school-aged children, remote employees, those burdened with student loans, and those leaning conservatively in their political beliefs all demonstrated an increased inclination toward rural living.

A few key factors stood out as primary influencers for people considering relocation. A strong K-12 education system, ample opportunities for outdoor recreation, and a more laid-back lifestyle were top attractions. On the flip side, factors such as immediate access to primary healthcare facilities and a varied food scene did not rank as highly in influencing their decisions.

An unexpected discovery was the perception of rural Pennsylvania among its own residents. Those living in the state harbored a marginally more negative view of the rural parts of Pennsylvania compared to participants from other states. Both groups, when contemplating rural Pennsylvania, predominantly visualized farms. However, native Pennsylvanians added forests and mountainous terrain to that imagery.

Lastly, in terms of incentives that might encourage a move to rural Pennsylvania, state residents demonstrated a strong preference for a 10-year state income-tax credit as opposed to a direct relocation grant.

Our research concludes that there exists a potential group in both neighboring states and non-rural Pennsylvania regions that might consider rural relocation under the right circumstances. To harness this potential, the following policy considerations are recommended.

First, targeted marketing would offer strategic advantages. This involves the design and implementation of marketing and incentive schemes that cater specifically to individuals whose characteristics indicate a likelihood to relocate. By identifying and understanding these demographics, marketing efforts can be more effective.

Additionally, community development will be key. This can be achieved by aligning community growth strategies with the most influential reasons people are drawn to or repelled from a location. This entails weaving together the lifestyle benefits associated with rural living and aligning them with viable job opportunities, ensuring that newcomers see the appeal in the region they’re thinking about.

It’s essential to ensure varied representation. The term “rural” encompasses a vast range of landscapes and lifestyles, especially in a diverse state like Pennsylvania. Through various programs and events, the multifaceted nature of what “rural” signifies should be showcased, thereby broadening the perception and appeal of rural Pennsylvania.

To ensure that incentives resonate with potential movers, tailored incentives will be crucial. Reassessing current incentive schemes and modifying them based on unique community requirements can make them more successful.

Another foundational recommendation involves the strengthening of local government. Addressing the issue of population decline requires robust local governance. Collaborating with state-level networks and tapping into university expertise can equip local governments with the tools and knowledge to address this challenge.

Finally, it’s essential to boost civic engagement. The best community-development plans are those in which residents have a say in how things get done. Including current residents in the formulation of community-growth strategies not only ensures that the plans are in tune with local needs but also deepens residents’ connection and commitment to their surroundings.

While challenges persist, the prospects for reversing population shrinkage in rural Pennsylvania could be promising with the use of tailored strategies and a recognition of the nuances of rural living preferences.

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