UW-Madison demographers part of research team to win national excellence award for rural population research

UW-Madison Applied Population Laboratory’s Katherine Curtis, Daniel Veroff, and Malia Jones are part of a multidisciplinary, multi-institution research team that was recently awarded the National Excellence in Multistate Research Award from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This prestigious and highly competitive award recognizes scientists who conduct exemplary research and outreach efforts across multiple states and in doing so enhance the visibility of USDA multistate programs. The team was awarded the Western Region Excellence in Research Award this summer.

The project, known as W4001: Social, Economic and Environmental Causes and Consequences of Demographic Change in Rural America, conducts research on the most pressing demographic, economic, social, and environmental challenges faced by rural communities in the U.S. Rural areas make up 72% of the nation’s land area, are home to 46 million people, and are essential to agriculture, natural resources, recreation, and environmental sustainability. These areas are constantly changing, and many face challenges such as limited access to healthcare, education, broadband internet, and jobs. Events like the Great Recession, the opioid epidemic, and the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted how such challenges can lead to major disruptions to the environmental, economic, social, and physical wellbeing of rural communities. The team’s findings have contributed to numerous local, state and national policies that support rural sustainability and well-being.

The team includes 39 investigators across 28 colleges and universities spanning all regions of the U.S. In just the last three years, the group has produced hundreds of peer-reviewed publications, developed public briefs, secured over $13 million in research funding, led workshops for community organizations, delivered over 200 presentations to stakeholders (including the U.S. Congress and the National Institutes of Health), and consulted for experts in multiple state and federal agencies.

In recent years, W4001’s research has helped address multiple major national health crises. For example, this project has provided essential information about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on rural communities, guiding states’ social distancing policies, resource allocation, testing, and reopening strategies. Additionally, this project was the first to identify rising rural opioid overdose rates and explanations for those trends. This information shaped national legislation, influenced the design of an interactive data visualization tool that helps communities assess and respond to the overdose crisis, and led to rapid resource allocation. The group’s research also guided the placement and training of community health workers after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, resulting in enhanced preparedness and health capacity.

Findings have also impacted natural resource management in rural areas. For example, research-based recommendations encouraged the Governor of Michigan to explore alternative energy options to address population decline and energy needs, and research on fishing declines in the Midwest prompted state natural resource departments to recruit and engage diverse stakeholders in management decisions.

W4001’s research has informed anti-poverty policies, including changes in official measurements of poverty and underemployment and the distribution of safety net resources. Project members were the first to discover that rural populations are shrinking due to young adult outmigration, fewer births, and increased mortality. Researchers created a database that details county-level age-specific net migration trends. Hundreds of thousands of regional planners, insurance companies, school districts, senior housing developers, public health agencies, and other stakeholders have used the database to understand rural needs and market demand and to inform infrastructure development and resource allocation. Recently, the group’s research and outreach has helped numerous state governments prepare for the 2020 Census and facilitate a complete count.

Three UW-Madison demographers are major contributors to the project: Katherine Curtis, Director of the Applied Population Laboratory and Professor of Community & Environmental Sociology at UW-Madison and the previous chairperson for W4001; Daniel Veroff, APL Outreach Specialist and UW Extension Demographic Specialist; and Malia Jones, APL Associate Scientist in Health Geography. Curtis’ research on environmental and economic forces shaping trends in rural population change and migration, Veroff’s programming on demographic trends and the 2020 Census, and Jones’ translational research on the COVID-19 pandemic have contributed in significant ways to the group’s research and outreach agendas.

The group received their award at the APLU/USDA national award ceremony, which took place virtually on October 28. “I am extremely proud to be a part of the W4001, and I am thrilled that the APLU and USDA have recognized our group’s decades-long commitment to producing demographic research that impacts science, practice, and policy addressing issues critical to rural America,” said Curtis.