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Aging Iowa: How to Help Communities Shrink Smart

Iowa's small towns have fewer children as the U.S. population continues to gray. (
Iowa's small towns have fewer children as the U.S. population continues to gray. (
February 1, 2018

DES MOINES, Iowa – A study to determine why some small towns in Iowa wither and others thrive is under way at Iowa State University.

For more than 30 years, most small Midwest communities have experienced shrinking populations, an exodus of younger people, job losses and fewer community services.

David Peters, an associate professor of sociology at ISU, is part of the Shrink Smart study. He says like the rest of the country, Iowa's population has gotten grayer and small towns have fewer children.

"What happens is local businesses, day care centers, other activities related to children, don't have enough kids to support those businesses economically,” he explains. “Then, new families coming in tend to not want to move to those communities because they don't have those amenities."

In 2015, Iowa reported the nation's 14th largest share of residents 65 and older.

When small towns have fewer children, they stop investing in services for children, which Peters says makes sense but also becomes self-fulfilling when it comes to creating childless communities.

"A lot of communities are invested heavily in senior care and senior housing services and not necessarily in child services,” he points out. “So when you begin that investment, that's the kind of new residents you're going to attract and that's the kind of residents you're going to retain are more of the senior citizens, not the younger citizens."

According to Peters the five or six small towns bucking the trend in Iowa are mainly dominated by younger, Latino families that have moved there for jobs in the agricultural or food processing industries.

He has studied rural Iowa through his Iowa Small Town Poll and knows some young families would prefer a small community but can't make it work.

"And they might want to live in a smaller town, but if there's not adequate day care, if there's not recreational and sports programs for their kids, they're probably going to locate to a larger town or a city," he explains.

The ISU team studying the Shrink Smart concept will host focus groups later this year to hear directly from Iowans.

Roz Brown, Public News Service - IA