We Must Make The Most Of The Coming Change

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By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News

Three entrepreneurs have approached the City of Benson in recent weeks who were inquiring about starting a business here. Swift County’s Rural Development Authority has also been contacted by three people looking at possibly opening a business in the county. Great news! Exciting news!

All six of those contacts have one thing in common – they were all with people limited, or no knowledge, of the English language. Great news! Exciting news! Was that your reaction? It should be.

America has been steadily, dramatically culturally changing in recent decades. In western Minnesota, like in much of rural northern plains states, diversity has been slow to materialize. Still, we have seen change, and we will see a lot more in the coming years. It is a change we had better be ready to accept and capitalize on for our future growth.

When we think of businesses in our community with entrepreneurs whose native language isn’t English, we don’t have to look very far for two successful examples - Mi Mexico and J&J Chinese. Nearly everyone in the community has eaten at one of the two or called in an order for take-out.

In 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau projected that by 2044 white Americans would represent fewer than half the population of America. It was a projection that stunned some, made more than a few feel threatened, and was welcomed by others.

Now recent Census data show the wave that will lead to the demographic changes projected for 2044 is building. This past June, the Census Bureau showed that among Americans 15 years old or younger, whites account for 49.9 percent of the population – less than half. Of course, there are some large states that significantly have to be factored into those numbers including Texas and California. Still, the complexion of our youth is changing, even here in rural western Minnesota.

“This phenomenon, which is projected to continue, emphasizes the need for institutions that focus on children and young families to proactively accommodate the interests of more racially diverse populations, as the latter will be key players in the country’s demographic and economic future,” William H. Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute wrote in an article this past June.

Swift County’s population is down by more than one-third since its peak of nearly 16,000 in the 1950s. It is below what it was in 1900 when immigrants and the sons and daughters of settlers were building a new life here. We are not going to be resettled by Europeans or Scandinavians. We are having a hard time keeping our sons and daughters here once they leave school.

 Our future is going to be with immigrants from Mexico, Central America, Asia, Africa, and other places.

That is going to take some getting used for many residents to accept. But we are going to need these immigrants, and their children, to fill our manufacturing jobs, to populate our schools, buy our homes or build new ones, and to shop in our stores.

Some who study the historical population trends for rural Minnesota say that there is no turning back the tide of declining population. We have more people dying than being born. Families have fewer children today than in the past and too many of the children we do have leave for jobs in bigger regional centers, the Twin Cities, or leave the state. We have fewer farm families.

We don’t accept that we have to accept the demographers’ forecasts as gospel. We believe there are steps we can take as a community and region to attract new residents and businesses. We do know that we are going to have to help ourselves first if we are to reverse our population loss. That means welcoming the people who are willing to move here who come from different racial and cultural backgrounds.

Most small towns think of themselves as welcoming, author and economic development “therapist” Doug Griffiths says. Griffiths, who spent some time in Benson last year helping us figure out our economic development strengths and weaknesses, is the author of the book “13 Ways to Kill Your Community.”

 “The first problem is that what most of us think of as being welcoming is just being friendly,” he writes. “There are a lot of friendly communities out there. I have been to many places where people smile when they pass you on the street. Some even say, ‘Hi’. If you are lost, they will even point a finger in the direction you should head. That is being friendly. There is nothing wrong with just being friendly, but admit that is all you are, and stop telling yourself your community is welcoming when it takes so much more than being friendly.”

Being welcoming goes a step farther than being friendly. It means inviting them into your home and social groups. It means helping them feel your community is their community, too. If we don’t do these things there is much to lose.

“Outsiders bring new energy and ideas to your community,” Griffiths writes. They bring money, and they spend it too. They bring kids for your school. They bring volunteers for community events. They start businesses. They buy houses. They grow the economy. They add an adaptability to communities that have grown old and stagnant.”
Demographers show we are steadily losing population. They show there is an opportunity to grow by welcoming immigrants. Those communities that are welcoming will grow. Those that are not will continue to fade.

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