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  • Writer's pictureBetter Neighbors Network

Refugees Revitalize Small Towns Across America

Refugees and immigrants are helping revitalize small towns across the United States by creating new businesses, filling desperately needed health care positions, and helping expand and improve school systems.

In the past decade, many small towns in America have seen a substantial population decline as people migrate towards urban centers. From 2000-2010 approximately 12.8 million people moved into America's urban areas from other locations in the country, accounting for 65% of all growth over this time. "A Stateline analysis of recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates show rural areas lost 226,000 people, a decline of about .5%, between 2010 and 2020, while cities and suburbs grew by about 21 million people, or 8%."

Because of severe population decline, many rural economies are suffering. What has been labeled a "brain drain" , new data from Congress’s Joint Economic Committee shows that many small towns across the Rust Belt, Southeast and Plains regions are experiencing an exodus of their educated residents to urban cities. This exodus has had lasting effects on small businesses as they struggle to find labor and customers. However, an unlikely group of people is revitalizing rural towns across the United States.

Immigrants are reversing or mitigating rural population decline

The Center for American Progress recently conducted a study that found immigrants are the primary reason for either slowing the rural population decrease or reversing it all together. Of all of the communities they studied, they found that "78 percent" of the rural communities that saw a population decline, immigrants slowed the pace of depopulation significantly. For the rural communities that saw a population growth, the news is even more surprising. Of the 873 small towns that recorded population growth, 21% of their growth can be attributed to immigrants.

Many of these communities are welcoming their new neighbors with open arms, as many of their communities are seeing positive results from adding new neighbors. Small towns are seeing positive impacts in many ways. Three of the largest impacts are the revitalization of small businesses, growing school systems and education opportunities for families, and an increase in access to doctors and better health care.

Economic Impact:

When immigrants move to rural areas, many of them work in agriculture, manufacturing, and service industries. Immigrants are often the only ones willing to pursue jobs in areas that many Americans consider too physically taxing. However, it is not just hard-working jobs immigrants are filling. Immigrants also play a big role in running small businesses across the US. In a recent Survey of Business Owners and the American Community Survey the report finds that while immigrants make up 13% of the U.S. population in general, they make up 18% of small business owners. For many small towns, new businesses mean new jobs for local residents. And for businesses currently operating in small towns, new neighbors means new customers.

Health Care: In Rural Towns, Immigrant Doctors Fill A Critical Need.

Rural communities account for nearly 66% of the primary care shortage across the nation, opposed to the 34% in non-rural areas. The issues are complex for many smaller towns, as taking over family practices in small towns can be expensive and time-consuming for many younger physicians. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought this crisis bubbling to the top, as many small-town hospitals have been running at capacity for the entirety of the pandemic. For around 60 million Americans living in rural towns, this has created a problem for even the most basic medical needs. A variety of issues have put rural hospitals in a fragile position, and in 2020, the United States saw a record of rural hospital closures. Since 2010, 136 rural hospitals have closed across the county, leaving residents no choice but to drive hours to receive care.

However, there does seem to be an answer to this problem. Many foreign-born doctors are filling those empty positions in struggling communities. There are discussions about increasing the number of foreign doctors the US admits to train and employ every year in order to help fill in the labor gaps in rural America. Doing so would help many Americans have access to quality health care in the areas where they live.

Schools and Education:

While many rural school systems across the country struggle to maintain their student body and attract new families, immigrants are helping to boost the population of some of the most isolated and underserved school systems in America.

"Some rural communities have reversed the impacts of population decline by attracting new residents to settle and work in their localities. In the late 1980s, Schuyler, Nebraska, and its long-time employer—a Cargill beef processing plant—successfully attracted many immigrant workers, mostly Latinos, to move there. By 2016, of Schuyler’s 6,100 total residents, almost 72 percent were Latino. During this same time period, the elementary school in Schuyler grew to become the second-largest school in Nebraska, and the high school is adding classrooms to meet the demand."

Although many rural communities across the country are struggling to grow, immigrants and refugees are well welcomed as they help create new opportunities for local communities. Being a good neighbor is more than just getting along with each other. It means helping each other in ways that are often unseen. As refugees and immigrants help revitalize local economies, fill desperately needed medical roles, and help grow and improve education opportunities, they act as great neighbors who care deeply for their communities and its success.


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