Small Town Math

What is the one difference between small towns in America today, and let’s say, 50 years ago?

Now the obvious difference is that there are fewer people.  And this decrease in population has led to schools closing, as well as businesses closing; the combination of the loss of schools and businesses thereby leads to the loss of more people, and an increase in the number of vacant houses.

Now let me ask you a question: why are there fewer people?

Most people will answer this question saying that small towns do not have jobs, which means that when one finishes high school and college, they have to look elsewhere for work, because their education, and their education debt, cannot be employed in a small town.

But is that the only way to look at it?

Let’s go back to the premise that the population number in small towns is down.  Towns that once numbered over 1000 are now below 500; and other towns have experienced similar drops in population.

But let’s go inside the numbers, the total number of people is down, but what about the number of family units?  (For the moment we will set aside the number of traditional nuclear family units, and look at just the number of households; whether it is traditional mother and father and children, or some combination where one parent is not the biological parent of all children in the home).  How does that number compare to 30, 40, and 50 years ago?

It would probably be fair to say that the number of family units is down, but is it down in proportion to the decrease in population, or is the number of family units down, but not significantly down over the same period of time?

I would argue that the number of family units in towns where the population is struggling, but not completely gone, is not down significantly as the population would suggest.

So what we would have is a relatively equal number of family units, but a smaller total overall population.

What happened?

For that we will need to look back 100 years where the answer is more obvious.  100 years ago, families were on average significantly larger than they are today.  Families, particularly families of farmers, had 10-12 children.  But it is important to note that farmers were not the only ones having large families, even people in towns had 8-10 children.

So fast-forward 50 years, families are still larger than they are today, but not as large as they were with many families only having 6 children.

Fast-forward to today, families are now considered large with 3-4 children.

The problem is not that people are leaving; it is that the people who are staying are having fewer and fewer children.

People have always left small towns to go into the military and to get jobs elsewhere.  And those people 100 years ago had a much shorter life expectancy than people do today.  The problem is not everywhere else, the problem in small towns is that the small towns are yielding smaller families.

Schools are not closing because people are moving away; they are closing because there is no one left to maintain the school.  Churches are not struggling because churches in bigger cities have bigger and better programs; they are struggling because the families in churches do not have the children to warrant those programs.  Jobs are not leaving small towns because there is no one to higher; they are leaving because small towns do not have the cliental to do the business.

The number of family units is relatively unchanged.  The difference is that those family units are having far fewer children than they once did.

The solution is not necessarily that every family should have 10 children again; those days are gone.  But, every family could have 1 more child each.  If you have 1, you can easily have 2; if you have 3, you can easily have 4; if you have 5, you can easily have 6.*

What would an additional 30-40 children do for a school system?  What would an additional 5-6 children do for each congregation’s Sunday school?  What would an additional 30-40 people do for a community’s tax base?

And if each family increased by 1, what would that do for the number of businesses in a community?  Suddenly maybe that restaurant, convenience store, grocery store, post office might have enough customers to stay in business.

*This plan advocates for an increase of children over the course of a life, in proportion to the children one already has; not that everyone conceive tonight, yielding a class of 30 children in 5 years.

About revschmidt

An LCMS Pastor in North-Central Kansas
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