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SD's Most Resilient Counties Escape Population Losses

The population of De Smet, S.D., declined more than 6 percent from 2010 to 2017, but the rural town raised money from local residents to expand the hospital and build an event center. (mapio.net)
The population of De Smet, S.D., declined more than 6 percent from 2010 to 2017, but the rural town raised money from local residents to expand the hospital and build an event center. (mapio.net)
June 18, 2018

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – The population of rural counties in South Dakota continues to decline, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but some rural towns are finding ways to boost resilience and keep young people from moving to larger cities.

Jessica Schad, an assistant professor of Sociology and Rural Studies at South Dakota State University, says rural communities are not homogenous.

According to her research, the most resilient communities are those with the lowest income disparity, and those with employers who put profits back into the community by investing in their schools or sports teams.

"That has a really important role to play in making it feel like it's a good place for people to live and that it's still a place with a high quality of life," she states.

U.S. Census Bureau data showed that more than 160 South Dakota rural communities had either flat or declining populations between 2010 and 2017.

Rural counties in the middle of South Dakota recorded the biggest population declines during the data collection.

On the other hand, those that added the most people were adjacent to a large metro area or university.

For example, Lincoln County, south of Sioux Falls, saw a 26 percent population increase, while Brookings added nearly 1,900 people.

Schad says rural towns that see growth usually credit a robust business community.

"Having these businesses be there to provide things that people wanted and needed, so that they didn't have to order things off Amazon, or so that they didn't have to drive a couple hours to access them," she explains.

According to Schad, there are typically three kinds of rural communities: those that are amenity-rich, usually with recreational opportunities; transitioning areas that relied on jobs that have largely evaporated; and chronically poor rural towns.

One community with mixed results that Schad looked at was De Smet. Both the town and county lost population from 2010 to 2017, but raised money from local residents for capital campaigns to expand the hospital and build an event center.

Schad met one resident there who opened a thriving yoga studio.

"So she's created this opportunity for herself so that she can stay in this place that means a lot to her,” Schad says. “So, sometimes the jobs aren't there so you see some really cool examples of young people making those opportunities."

Schad notes that declining rural populations also affect politics, explaining that Republican votes for President Donald Trump were highest in places undergoing the most significant economic transitions.

Roz Brown, Public News Service - SD