Rurals of Nevada - The Aging Rurals, Conclusion (Art. 07)
"The future of rural America is increasingly marked by demographic, regional, and economic diversity." - DW Rowlands and Hannah Love, The Brookings Institute, 28 September 2021.
Since Thanksgiving, I have been trying to challenge the idea of a monolithic “aging rurals” that appears at the center of many policy discussions. Despite increased scrutiny since 2016 into the “diversity” of rural America, the relatively older age of the rurals has not been significantly challenged. Even the Brookings Institute article quoted above, which is one of the best summaries of the diversification of rural America, does not address aging in its demographic analysis. It is an odd but all too common lacuna in rural analysis and policy making.
It does feel, however, that I am at times jousting with strawmen. But who are the strawmen? It is certainly not the local officials trying to apply for a grant. Nor is it the researchers and consultants who are doing the heavy lifting of statistical analysis in rural counties. These people are being charged to investigate a specific issue and do it very, very well.
The real audience is the policymakers at the state and federal levels who take these specialized studies and make decisions. For better or worse, American public life is increasingly centralized—not just in the sense of who presumably makes decisions but also who has access to funding indispensable for infrastructure projects. Part of their job, in my opinion, is to place these needs within a larger context. The more that larger context is complicated and the more thick reports from consultants and local communities pile up, the more the tendency is to “simplify” the context to make sense of it all.
Myths such as economically dying rurals, stagnant rurals, all-white rurals, and aging rurals are the simplification. I mentioned in the second article that historically “rural” was effectively left undefined because of the assumption everyone knew what rural meant. I am not sure that is the case anymore. Also, I am not saying myths about urban areas do not exist. They most assuredly do, and the parallel work being done to address these myths is most welcome.
Effective policies require grappling with the complexities on the ground—and those often do not fit into easy models. Perhaps models are the ultimate strawmen with whom I am tilting.
To wrap up this specific discussion, I want to quickly look at the question of whether we can develop some measure of “aging” that can show rural areas (at least in Nevada) are aging. In a sense, can we support the myth? Then I want to do a shallow dive into two policy questions where looking at a broader idea of “aging” can impact decisions heavily dependent on state funding. It is at these levels that the persistence of a singular, aging rural Nevada is creating the most difficulties.
The Walk-in-the-Park Ratio (*trademark pending)
Determining the “oldest” area in any geography by using a single metric is a fraught proposition. Although the question might seem easy, the brief dives into the data for median ages, percentage of population under 18, and percentage of population 65 or older showed that there are several reasons these measures (particularly median age) might not fully reflect the entirety of the demographics. Individually they are quite useful for specific purposes, but not for a “complete picture” model of the overall status of rural counties.
I have played a bit in trying to devise some model that might capture the various bits of data into a singular whole. Certainly, I am not the first to try such a crazy idea—nor the first to realize it is a bit of a quixotic quest. The closest I came was an average ranking system based on state ranks in the various categories or category combinations. There was some consistency across measures: Elko and Humboldt Counties were regularly the youngest, Clark County was usually 3rd or 4th, and the bottom two were Esmeralda and Storey Counties. But besides being complex to explain, I am not sure the effort adequately captured what I was trying to discuss.
But what I came to realize is that the majority of questions that might be impacted by the myth of the “aging rurals” come down to two fundamental features: the number of children running around and the number of senior citizens around, even with not-so-much running. And we have two perfectly good measures for this: the Population Under 18 and the Population 65 or Older. What do Nevada’s rurals look like when we compare these two numbers?
I present the “Walk-in-the-Park Ratio.” Comparing these two numbers as a simple ratio, I think we can get a good sense (albeit a snapshot at a period in time) of whether a county is aging as well as graying. It also provides a handy data visualization: if you were walking in a park in that county, how would the number of children you see match the number of elderly? Presumably, more elderly would mean an aging county, while more children would mean a younger one. And no, I am not trademarking this—public data algorithms should be, well, public. Regardless of how neat they are.
The Walk-in-the-Park Ratio is an effort to measure a county’s overall age by comparing the Under-18 population and the 65-and-older population. A higher ratio—more children than senior citizens—is a healthy sign of youth.
I am also cognizant of one major issue: this ratio does not quite get directly at the “hollowing out” model of rural areas which see children grow up and leave. However, the important corollary to “hollowing out” is that there is a smaller next generation. So having a high Under-18 part of the Walk-in-the-Park ratio is a healthy sign, indicating the presence of both children and their parents.
So, here’s the table I put together to measure this, based on the 2021 ACS data used last week. Note that for the population I used the actual numbers rather than percentages; the rounding errors to generate percentages added to those errors from rounding the ratios seemed to create some odd results. I decided to keep it simple. For the Three Rurals, I also have provided the ratio ranges for the individual counties as well.
Across the United States and Nevada generally, the ratio is roughly 1.4:1, meaning that you would likely meet 3 children for each senior citizen couple sharing a quiet moment on a park bench. Side-stepping the fertility replacement rate debate, this seems a fairly healthy population balance where all ranges of age-based public services are needed. A few of those children could leave as adults without upsetting the county too much. In Nevada, Clark County and Washoe County sit on slightly opposite sides of this divide; a few more children in Clark, somewhat fewer in Washoe.
When we get to Carson City and the rurals collectively, however, the picture changes rather drastically. A ratio of 1:1 indicates that you are as likely to see a child as a senior citizen. Although we might be tempted to see this as a “balanced” number, it actually represents a sharply aged population. It likely signals a lack of child-bearing age families and an overall aging population. It somewhat accounts for the “hollowing-out” issue.
Carson City’s status as primarily a state capital with a more transient working-age adult population (bureaucrats and such) likely explains the low ratio here. For the rurals, it is overwhelmingly the aging Western and Central Rural regions that are lowering this ratio. In the majority of these counties, you would be more likely to see an elderly couple rather than a single child at the park—particularly in Storey and Esmeralda Counties. Even in White Pine County, the number of children is very low given the median age of 41.3. Again, it is closer to the rest of the Central Rural regions than its median age indicates.
That leaves us with the I-80 Corridor counties. Here, you would likely see two children for each senior citizen—quite a change from anywhere else in the state. Certainly, this ratio is slewed heavily (like everything in the I-80 Corridor) by the large and young population in Elko, but it is worth noting that Eureka, Humboldt, and Lander are all above the national ratio of 1.4:1 as well. Only Pershing County is below the average—although it is still above the 1:1 ratio or less for the other rural counties. This rural Nevada is very young.
Rural Nevada is simultaneously the oldest and the youngest part of the state. Ignoring this simple fact can lead to the misallocation of resources.
The truth is rural Nevada is simultaneously the oldest and the youngest part of Nevada. Ignoring this simple fact can lead to some misallocations of resources and efforts. But why is it important to look at the age profile as a whole instead of a demographic of interest to a particular project? The answer is that the most efficient infrastructure investments play the long game, not the current demographics.
Let’s take a simplistic example. Say some state or federal agency is willing to fund medical professionals to move into rural areas for long-term contracts (5-10 years). What specialties might be encouraged to apply? Given the popular conception of the “aging rurals,” the most likely recruitment market might be geriatric specialists. But what about the I-80 Corridor, where children outnumber the elderly? Should they just have to rely on their resources to recruit obstetricians and pediatricians for which there is a greater need? Alternatively, should policies recognize the diversity of rural counties and offer more flexibility? And if so, how?
To further illustrate the point, I want to take a quick look at two issues currently facing rural Nevada counties: school funding and the housing crunch.
School Funding: The Bête Noire of Nevada Politics
School funding has become one of the most contentious and nastiest aspects of the Nevada legislative debates over the last decade. Much of the controversy has centered on the supposed over-funding of rural schools compared to the exploding needs of growing urban counties (especially Clark). The argument is that funding is being kept in rural areas that is more needed elsewhere.
The latest legislative effort to “equalize” this is known as the Pupil Centered Funding Plan (PCFP). It is a wildly complex formula, but one key component is vitally important: significant funding sources such as ad valorem school support tax, the Local School Support Tax, and the Net Proceeds of Mining Tax (along with others) were starting in July 2021 transferred to the state to be parcelled back out to local school districts based on the formula. The full effect of the PCFP will not be known for some years, but the initial allocations already have resulted in some shocks to rural school districts.
I am not going to try to break down the PCFP details. However, I think that the embedding of the “aging rural” myth is central to the policy. This bodes ill with the concurrent shift to more centralized decision-making. Moreover, given the centrality of school enrollment to the debate (as opposed to other measures of aging), statistics have led to the acceptance of the aging rural premise by local leaders as well which further complicates the issue. That is one of the pernicious powers of myths. Let me illustrate using Elko County as an example.
During a school board candidate forum earlier in 2022, I asked a question about growth in Elko County and what it means for funding. This question was sparked by both the shift to the PCFP and the recent failure (in December 2021) of a school tax referendum for capital projects. One candidate responded that school enrollment in the county had been stable since the mid-1990s at roughly 10,000 students, so outgrowing schools and needing new ones was not a priority concern. The candidate was correct in the facts—but two key issues stood out to me in this response.
First, that a rural county like Elko has maintained relatively stable school enrollment for close to 25 years is a remarkable achievement in the face of the “aging rurals” idea. Given that the age of first birth for females has been in the 27-30 range for this period (see the Census report here), Elko has maintained this level for almost a generation. We are not “hollowing out”—indeed, it rather indicates a moderate level of sustained growth. New kids for schools have to come from somewhere.
Second, what does this growth mean in terms of education funding? Elko is not Clark County, adding thousands of students a year causing schools to burst at the seams. But we are also not shrinking, seeing enrollment slowly drop and the schools become emptier year after year like in some other rural counties. The assumption here is that Elko County might have a lot of students, but does not need significant funding for the future. It just needs maintenance to keep going or, maybe, to wind down operations if the population starts aging.
This ignores, however, the time factor discussed above—namely, that this level has continued for almost a generation. The aging that is important here is not of the population, but the school infrastructure. Infrastructure has a time-dependent element that directly intersects with long-term growth and aging. A perception that if a community is not “growing” the infrastructure is sufficient for now can result in policies that neglect the infrastructure over long periods. And then a crisis emerges.
For schools in rural counties like Elko, the important aging issue might be less that of the population than of the infrastructure.
A report just released by consultants for the Elko County School District this month (December 2022) highlighted exactly these issues. Recognizing that Elko is likely to see continued plateauing of school enrollment over the next decade, the report argues against the need for any major capital expansion projects (no new schools). However, in assessing the state of current school facilities, the consultants found some significant issues which need addressing, including heating, air conditioning, and building water-proofing issues. Over half of schools (13 out of 23) were in “fair” or “poor” overall condition (“combined score” in the report). Unsurprisingly, the worse schools are those located in the youngest, growing areas of the county: Elko, West Wendover, and Owyhee (the Duck Valley Shoshone-Paiute Reservation).
This situation is exactly what is to be expected for an aging infrastructure that is seeing continual use but not continued renewal. I agree with the report (and the candidate) that new school construction is not warranted. However, the costs to address the delayed repairs are staggering. To bring all schools up to a “good” rating was estimated by the consultant at $32.6 million—equal to about 24% of the current fiscal year budget of $137 million (per Elko County School District’s ClearGov site). But that budget is under the new formula and almost $20 million less than the pre-pandemic average. Completing all recommended upgrades would cost an estimated $148.7 million.
With the new formula, based on student enrollment and weighted for student needs, Elko is going to struggle to find excess funds for infrastructure. Supporting programs to bring students up to grade level or ESL programs are necessary and should be funded, but should not also functional heating systems and preventing water leakage into buildings? Even grants (which will cost additional money for application) and some form of local tax are not likely to allow these issues to be speedily addressed. The state is most likely to have to either support these or, worse, write them off as unattainable—and then deal with the next consequence some years down the road. Considered a rural, aging county by both state and local leaders may have left Elko stripped of funds to address a generational infrastructure issue at the exact moment it is becoming a crisis.
The Housing Crises and Elderly Housing as Solution
Another issue that runs across all age groups is the ongoing housing crises. I am using the plural because it really is a complex situation with multiple components. Nevada’s surging growth, particularly in Clark and Washoe, contributes heavily. But a concurrent fall in adequate housing stock in rural areas is occurring, which can neither be solved by local resources nor is addressable simply by bringing in Reno- or Las Vegas-based contractors. This 2021 report on Humboldt County’s housing situation is a good analysis of the complexities in the I-80 Corridor at the moment.
One recent idea gaining traction is public funding of elderly multi-unit housing (not assisted living). Such housing can provide elderly senior citizens with independent living arrangements and access to needed transportation, goods, and services. But—and this is the beauty of the program—it also addresses the other end of housing needs by increasing the stock available for younger workers as senior citizens move into new units. Remember that Nevada has a high percentage of elderly citizens living alone. By “flipping” (if I can use that term) existing housing stock to a younger generation, more efficient use is achieved and the need for expensive new housing is reduced.
On the surface, this approach represents one of the best public policy ideas I have seen in a while. It commits public funds to solve a clear issue (elderly housing) which also has positive benefits for others (senior access to services, housing for young families). It is really innovative and represents what ideal public policy should strive to achieve.
But it is also founded on a key assumption: there is a sufficient supply of existing housing stock that can be “freed” to house families at a level to help dissipate a crisis. It embeds a variation of the “aging rural” myth that sees a rough parallel in rural counties between elderly and younger households, something akin to a 1-to-1 ratio. The idea works because of a perception of static or at best slightly growing populations. If you are expecting growth to come from single workers moving into a rural county for work but not planning long-term (i.e., establishing families), the policy makes a lot of sense.
Flipping housing from elders to younger families is a great public policy idea, but how might it play out across the Three Rurals of Nevada with different aging profiles?
So how might such an approach play out across the Three Rurals? I think it has a good chance to work very well in the Central Rurals and might quickly attenuate the housing crunch in areas such as Hawthorne, Tonopah, Caliente, or Ely. Pahrump is a horse of a different color, but when is it not? Overall, this appears to me to be a very viable approach to addressing the housing issue in counties not really expecting heavy growth in the near future.
The Western Rural counties present a slightly different issue. Certainly, they can benefit from the approach, especially in Fallon which is seeing more young families. The problem as I see it is the specific housing markets and the older age of new buyers. If a 68-year-old widower is moved out of a 2- or 3-bedroom home, how do you insure the buyer is a young family with kids and a first mortgage and not a recently-retired 57-year-old couple wanting to move to Gardnerville voluntarily and able to pay cash? In the latter case, a significant housing issue might continue for younger families, and the whole process may need to be repeated in another decade. I am not suggesting a “55 or older with no kids? 1 bedroom for you!” policy. I am just saying the matter bears some deeper consideration and attention to local dynamics.
The problem in the I-80 Corridor, which has both a relatively smaller elderly population and more young families and professionals, is that while this approach can help, it is not going to come close to solving the housing shortage. Looking to the Humboldt County report, the consultants estimated that the county would need to add on average 58 new housing units a year between 2022 and 2027 based on projected economic growth. Elko, Battle Mountain, Eureka, and Lovelock are all going to need the ability to construct additional housing stock as well.
In other words, elderly townhouses might be a necessary program to begin to address the housing crunch, but not sufficient in itself. Other policies, such as establishing inland ports to reduce supply chain costs, workforce/business development plans, or capital funding for rural contractors, will need to continue to be discussed and might be more efficient in the long term. A policy that treats all of rural Nevada as a singular whole might very well ignore these crucial alternatives—which will have significant but diversified effects on the Three Rurals for years to come.
I do not claim to have easy answers to any of these issues. Policy decisions are and should be complex. My concern is that a growing separation of decision-making from local sources is making reliance on models more pronounced—and those models are increasingly inaccurate the farther they get from the situation on the ground.
For states such as Nevada with its biennial legislative sessions (yes, our state legislature meets only once every two years) and gradual centralization of resources and decision-making, the question of data is more fraught. Temporary situations since the last time something was considered two years ago become magnified and elections tend to stress the more immediate local conditions rather than the long-term. It becomes easy to fall into a situation where the snapshot of now seems more important than trying to figure out how that snapshot came to be and where it might indicate we are going.
And those, ultimately, are the questions that good public policy should be asking. And the answers are going to require far more attention to details than currently available in most public discourse.
Thank you all again for bearing with me, and please feel free to leave me some comments or ask some questions.
And I want to wish every Happy Holidays and urge you to be safe in whatever you have planned.