Q&A - January 8, 2016

One of the most pervasive problems facing rural communities and small cities across the country is that of a declining population. A devastating void is always created when residents move away from a community in large numbers.

When people leave a community at a faster rate than they are being replaced, it starts a downward cycle that is extremely difficult to overcome. This affects retailers as they lose their customer base and find it harder to stay in business. As retail and other jobs go away, families that depended on those jobs struggle and seek employment elsewhere. Public schools lose student enrollments as families leave the area and have difficulty maintaining instructional programs and facilities. As schools lay off workers, more families are negatively impacted and move away to find work or better schools. Healthcare and other service-based providers soon begin to measure a loss in patients and clients that affects their ability to remain in local practice. As taxpayers disappear, city and county offices lose tax base and find it harder to maintain roads and essential services. When homeowners leave, a glut of homes saturates the market becoming difficult to sell. Real estate becomes devalued as a growing number of unoccupied structures deteriorate. The declining appearance of the community makes it difficult to attract new employers…and the depopulation cycle continues.

I am grateful to the questioner this week for inquiring about this critical problem.

Q: What can we do to get more of our young people to stay in Okmulgee?

When a community loses its best and brightest young minds, it weakens its potential. “Brain-drain” is a significant challenge, but it can be reversed by the focused efforts of local citizens who understand that generational solutions are often the best hope for combating such long-reaching problems.

We must first confront the “grass is always greener” myth. Many people, particularly young people, are convinced that their lives would be improved if they were just living somewhere else. We need to help them understand that our lives are what we make of them. Our lives are enriched by what we do, not by where we are. There are rewarding endeavors and motivational challenges to be found everywhere—including Okmulgee, Oklahoma. Our youth should not be made to feel that they are a failure if they choose to live out their lives in the town where they grew up. To the contrary, these young people need to know that they are local heroes when they decide to become contributing members and leaders in their hometown.

Then, we need to create opportunities for young people who wish to remain in the community. Despite their level of interest, no young person will be able to remain in Okmulgee if there are no jobs for them in Okmulgee. The same can be said if there are no homes or things for them to do in town. Investing in human capital is nearly always one of the wisest and most profitable allocations of any organization. If we incentivize young professionals by creating jobs for them, places for them to live, and ways for them to become involved, the dividends to the community will be remarkable.

Our young people can be an important part of the solution for what ails this community if we will encourage them in the right ways. Please continue to send your questions to osuit-president@okstate.edu.