Impacts of Return Migration on Rural U.S. Communities


  • This work could not have been done without the help of many people in rural U.S. communities who agreed to share with us their insight and their stories. We are very thankful to them: the high school reunion organizers, the reunion participants, the rural community leaders, and all others, from school receptionists to newspaper staff, who were supportive of our work. We are thankful to the editor of Rural Sociology and the anonymous reviewers of this journal for their constructive and supportive comments. This research was funded by NRI competitive research grant number 2007-35401-17742, provided by CSREES (now NIFA) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, the views expressed here are those of the authors and may not be attributed to the Economic Research Service or the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


Rural population loss is caused as much by low in-migration as by high out-migration, and for geographically disadvantaged nonmetropolitan counties in the United States, return migration plays a crucial role. This research captures impacts of return migrants on population, economy, and society in declining rural U.S. communities using a qualitative, multisited approach. Interviews conducted at high school reunions with rural returnees in their late 20s to late 40s show that the vast majority of returnees brought spouses and children back with them, increasing the short-term and long-term population. They also brought back much needed human capital, including education, job skills, and life experiences, and filled professional positions that are often hard to fill in rural communities. Entrepreneurial activities and self-employment of many return migrants favorably affected rural economies by improving the employment base and expanding available services. Interviews show how decisions to move back were grounded in social relations that promoted civic engagement. While they mainly moved back for their children and their families, return migrants valued involvement in familiar social networks and the opportunities to make a difference in their rural hometowns.