At an April 3, 2017 congressional briefing sponsored by PAA entitled Small Towns/Big Changes: the Shifting Demographics of Rural America, the findings presented to the standing-room-only audience served to validate some conventionally held assumptions and challenge others. As Dr. Daniel Lichter of Cornell University framed the issue, rural demographic trends can be characterized as the Three-D’s: Depopulation, Death [Rates] and Diversity. Yet as many rural areas struggle with relative population decline, sagging economies and an aging population base, some areas have managed to maintain or grow economic vitality – and these same communities often feature an influx in immigrant populations.
The first PAA congressional briefing of the new 115th Congress drew an audience of more than 70 people, from congressional staff to federal agency personnel to colleagues from other scientific and higher educational organizations. The briefing was co-sponsored by the American Sociological Association, the American Statistical Association, the Association of Population Centers, the Association of Public Data Users, the Consortium of Social Science Associations, Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics, the Population Reference Bureau, and the Rural Sociological Association; the congressional sponsor was Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT)..
- Dr. Daniel Lichter, Cornell University, who provided an overview of the historical demographic trends in rural areas contrasted to the status of today’s rural America;
- Dr. Jennifer Van Hook, Pennsylvania State University, who discussed the impact of immigration on rural communities, using three case studies;
- Dr. Meredith Kleykamp, University of Maryland, who offered insights on the special relationship between rural communities and military service, and the profile of rural veterans;
- Dr. Wesley James,University of Memphis, who detailed the health and mortality trends taking place in rural America, and their implications for the future;
- Dr. Robert Moffitt, Johns Hopkins University and past president of PAA, moderated the panel.
The topic of the briefing proved timely, given the political and cultural differences that have emerged in the past year – and evidenced by the standing-room-only crowd. And no doubt those who attended will continue to mull the implications of the evidence presented: “Nine out of ten rural areas are more diverse now than they were 20 years ago,” observed Dr. Van Hook; rural Americans are more likely to join the military than their urban counterparts, yet, “We do not know enough about what rural-origin service members do when they leave the military,” stated Dr. Kleykamp; and, according to Dr. James, rural deaths “are not created equal … Rural Americans die at a higher rate than urban Americans and it’s getting worse every year, “ with rural black Americans, middle-aged white women and men, the unemployed and people that have less than a high school education being hit the hardest.
All of the speakers spoke enthusiastically about the importance of investing in federal statistical agencies and surveys, including the American Community Survey and National Center for Health Statistics. This is an especially important message at a time when federal spending is being carefully scrutinized for potential spending cuts.