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Jennifer Vogel, Published August 24 2013

Rural Minnesota growing older

LONG PRAIRIE, Minn. – Verna Toenyan, who was raised in Eagle Bend in central Minnesota, organizes and advocates for seniors in Todd County, where almost one in five residents are age 65 or older.

Though she’s in her 60s herself, she often begins her days at 5 a.m. and works until well after dark, occasionally pulling her car over for a nap on the shoulder of a road.

She knits people and dollars together in myriad creative combinations.

She teaches the elderly to use email and arranges networks that keep them in their houses and out of nursing homes. She organizes food programs.

“You could never put a price tag on anything that would make an 80- or 90-year-old woman get up, put on the best outfit that she’s got and lipstick and earrings, to meet somebody bringing her a hot meal,” said Toenyan. “There’s no price tag.”

In the next decade, Minnesota is expected to have more people older than 65 than school-aged children, a demographic shift that disproportionately affects rural areas, which are already older than the norm.

The trend extends nationwide. Almost half of all rural counties experienced more deaths than births between 2011 and 2012. That compares with just 17 percent of urban counties.

A shift toward older Minnesotans – where there are more people drawing public benefits and fewer working to pay for them – will dramatically alter many aspects of life, primary among them the delivery of health care. Simply spending more isn’t an option, given tight federal, state and local budgets. So, people look for new ways of doing things, such as using broadband for long-distance diagnoses and record-keeping or providing in-home services so the elderly can “age in place.”

The solution usually depends on the particular problem. And the tools of success depend on a community’s resources, whether an abundance of volunteers, high-speed Internet or a local, innovative hospital.

In Toenyan’s case, she taps public, private and foundational resources to make sure seniors in Todd County don’t go hungry. Recently, she established a nonprofit bakery in Eagle Bend to help raise money for a senior meals program. Several years ago, she helped start a new kind of bundled Meals on Wheels service that enlists volunteers to deliver frozen dinners to elderly people living along some of the longest gravel roads in the county.

“It’s just that I love the people and want everyone to have a bright future and options and opportunities, regardless of age, from a tiny baby on up,” she said.

For others in rural Minnesota, reimagining the places where they live means encouraging the arts or pushing locals to open new businesses. It may mean haranguing elected officials to engage in smarter planning, developing ecological farming practices, building incubator kitchens to anchor local food revivals or stringing fiber optic cable up steep rock faces to serve remote homes.

Some people start community gardens where locals of different ethnicities can interact or put on plays that explore the history of a town to bolster civic pride.

Expensive proposition

But by some measures, “keeping it rural” is a difficult and expensive proposition.

In a time of protracted national budget difficulties, people are asking: Is it more important to keep services alive for a small, remote community or to spend public dollars where they’ll have the most impact?

Washington Post reporter Ezra Klein somewhat famously touted the wealth-generating power of cities two years ago in a column about the book, “The Triumph of the City.” He wrote that “cities make us smarter, more productive and more innovative. To put it plainly, they make us richer.” But, he added, “it would of course be political suicide for President Obama to say that part of winning the future is ending the raft of subsidies we devote to sustaining rural living.”

Some rural advocates took umbrage at the notion of a rural subsidy, noting that when federal spending on military, criminal justice and higher education are factored in, spending on metro areas per capita is slightly higher than in rural areas. In fact, per capita federal spending has increased in rural and urban parts of the nation in recent years, but it has increased less in rural areas – 32 percent, compared with 40 percent, between 2006 and 2010.

Because rural people generally are poorer and older than those in cities, they draw substantially more in the significant category of transfer payments, including medical benefits, retirement and disability payments, unemployment insurance and veterans’ benefits. These payments added up in 2011 to $8,236 per person in rural areas and $7,022 in metro areas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

When it comes to state money, there is a similar shift of tax dollars from urban to rural communities. Minnesota aids and credits, or money paid out of the state coffers, totaled almost $2,600 per capita in non-metro areas in 2009 compared to just more than $2,400 in metro areas, according to a 2012 report from the Minnesota House Research Department. Yet, when it comes to major state taxes, or money paid in, non-metro areas contributed about $2,000 per capita and metro areas $3,000. So, in many ways, cities here support rural areas.

While outstate communities tend to draw fewer private investment and foundation dollars, it’s also true that a host of programs exist to keep rural America afloat. Even setting aside the billions that go toward farm subsidies each year, the federal government has dedicated about $7 billion to expanding broadband Internet access to underserved areas. It also subsidizes more than 1,300 remote hospitals by paying them 1 percent above their Medicare costs and spends about $200 million each year on the Essential Air Service program, which helps keep some rural airports, including several in Minnesota, flying.