Iowa towns in general seem to be losing both population and vitality. How do we determine if rural towns are surviving?

Ask an Economist
Question: 

In his answer to my previous question, Dr. Orazem states that 'Iowa's small towns are surviving' (compared to Nebraska). Are they? A vast majority of Iowa school districts have seen declining enrollments for years/decades, many/most of the small rural main streets that I see appear to be in serious decline, and the towns in general seem to be losing both population and vitality. I travel a lot through rural Iowa and it sure doesn't feel like most of these small towns are surviving. Am I incorrect? If my eyeball test and what I think are accurate demographic data aren't sufficient, how do we determine if rural towns are surviving? Thanks much. Just trying to wrap my head around issues related to small Iowa town vitality and the accompanying implications for schools.

Answer: 

I think it is important in establishing policy to work from facts and not perceptions. While rural towns are getting smaller on average, not all are. While schools are consolidating in rural areas, they are also consolidating in cities as like Ames where declining numbers of children per household are increasing the catchment area required to capture a sufficient number of children for a viable school.

The comparison with Nebraska is deliberate. Nebraska has 93 counties averaging 832 square miles. Iowa has 99 counties averaging 568 square miles. The smallest Iowa county in population is Adams at 4,192. Nebraska has 33 counties smaller than that. Fifty percent of the Iowa population lives in its biggest 12 counties. Fifty percent of the Nebraska population lives in 3 counties. Iowa has 36 counties with at least 20 thousand residents representing 75% of its population. Nebraska has 17 counties with at least 20 thousand residents representing 76% of its population. In short, Iowa has more broadly dispersed areas with sufficient population density to support a labor market. Nebraska does not.

It is important to understand that perceptions such as those expressed by Dr McLeod are shaped by arbitrary decisions on geography and distance. If Iowa counties were as large as Nebraska counties, we would have 67 counties and not 99, and fewer of those 67 would be viewed as shrinking. And if we had school districts by county as in Maryland rather than by city, we would have 99 and not 363 school districts and fewer of those would be shrinking. Consolidation is occurring because we had too many schools and school districts to begin with.

Make no mistake that not all rural Iowa towns are doing well. However, it is important to understand what has been and will continue to be the source of work for people in small towns in Iowa, and that is the ability to access an urban labor market. The rural towns that are doing best are the ones that can commute to the growing job centers in the State.