Today we turn our attention north and west to the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, a place that likely hasn’t attracted the attention of many of our readers.
Saskatchewan is a lightly-populated province — just under 1.2 million people, or about the size of the Richmond metro area spread over an area that would stretch from Northern Virginia to Key West. Most of it seems to be wheat fields and snow, sometimes simultaneously. The province serves the same role in Canadian popular culture that the American Midwest does in ours. The long-running television show “Little Mosque on the Prairie” — about a Muslim family in Canada — was set in a mythical town in Saskatchewan to highlight the culture clash. Americans probably know the province best through the Johnny Cash song “Girl In Saskatoon” that namechecks the province’s largest city. Even he sang about “the barren waste in the crystal doom.” As a love song, it’s a sweet little tune, but it’s not exactly a marketing pitch for living so close to the Arctic Circle. Of course, keep in mind that song was written by Americans. Saskatchewan’s most famous singer — Joni Mitchell, who grew up in Saskatoon — would no doubt have written a more uplifting version. Her 2005 album, “Songs of a Prairie Girl,” consists of songs that reference the province in some way.
In any case, for all their topographical differences, there are some stunning similarities between the prairies of Saskatchewan and the mountains of Southwest Virginia. Both face the same problem: Too many young adults are moving away. That problem is easier to see in Southwest Virginia (indeed, rural Virginia generally) than it is in Saskatchewan. Every locality west of the New River is losing population. So are most localities in Southside Virginia. Saskatchewan is actually gaining population, albeit at a slower rate than most Canadian provinces. It’s doing so, though, only because it’s attracting immigrants from other countries. Canada, no matter which party is in power, encourages immigration as good for the economy, and rural Canada seems a lot more open-minded about immigration than rural America is. That in-migration from overseas masks the province’s problem with out-migration: Each year, more people move to other provinces than move in. Were it not for immigration, Saskatchewan would be losing population. Over the past decade, 5.47% of Saskatchewan’s population moved to other provinces; that’s a lot for immigration to overcome. And that’s where Saskatchewan really starts to look like Southwest and Southside Virginia. Both want to reverse their population out-flows. Both need more young adults — especially young adults with college degrees, because that’s what the new economy demands.
And that’s where policy-makers in Virginia ought to be looking at what their counterparts in the provincial capital of Saskatchewan have done: They’ve created a tax break for college graduates who live in the province. It doesn’t matter whether those graduates are Saskatchewan residents who have decided to stay in the province, or those from other provinces who have moved there. Both are eligible. The tax break comes in the form of tax credits — up to $20,000 worth over seven years. Those are Canadian loonies, so currently worth about $14,826 in American greenbacks.
Let’s not dwell too much on the details, though. Let’s focus on the overall concept — and its results. Since the province created the Graduate Retention Program in 2008, it’s been used by 69,000 people. The program hasn’t stopped out-migration completely, but it’s fair to conclude that the program has reduced it, which is the first step. If those 69,000 people had moved out for the brighter lights of Vancouver or Toronto, Saskatchewan’s population growth would have been close to zero.
The province has launched other programs designed to attract or retain people in certain fields. The Student Loan Forgiveness for Nurses and Nurse Practitioners forgives up to $20,000 in student loans for nurses and nurse practitioners who choose to practice in rural areas. Since the program started six years ago, 257 have. Likewise, there’s a program aimed at attracting doctors. Saskatchewan isn’t alone in trying to use tax policy to attract younger, and more educated, residents — it just has the most famous and most extensive program. Here in the United States, Maine is now doing the same thing with a tax credit that reduces the tax burden for those with college loans to pay off. Maine, like Saskatchewan, started its program in 2008. At the time, it applied only to students from Maine. Now it applies to anyone as long as they move to Maine — a state that has the oldest median age in the country. That median age, by the way, is 44.6, which is either about the same, or younger, than many localities in rural Virginia. In Highland County, for example, the median age is 58.6. Elsewhere, Kansas offers a tax break for college graduates who live in certain economically-distressed counties. So far, about 600 have. Montana debated, but ultimately killed, a similar bill earlier this year. Vermont has a somewhat different approach: It has a grant program for people of any age or background who move to the state to create their own job or take one with an existing company. The details differ from state to state to province, but the problem they’re trying to address is the same: To create a younger, more educated labor pool. Otherwise, they rightly fear the new economy will simply pass them by and accelerate a demographic death spiral.
By now, you can probably guess where this is headed: Why doesn’t Virginia try something similar? It’s worth pointing out that these programs in Saskatchewan and the three American states have — with just one exception — been initiated by conservatives who represent rural areas, so you’d think that might appeal to Republicans in Virginia, as well. That only exception is Maine, where Democrats started the program but Republicans later expanded it.
Here’s the big difference, though: Saskatchewan, Kansas, Maine and Vermont are all overwhelmingly rural. Dealing with the rural economy there is a statewide (or province-wide) imperative. In Virginia, it’s not. Rural Virginia is often an afterthought in a legislature increasingly dominated by urban and suburban legislators from the eastern part of the state. Here’s a case where rural Virginia would be better off if we were governed from Regina and not Richmond. Except for this: Today, the state’s tobacco commission meets in Roanoke to discuss a very similar proposal. The commission would do well to look to Saskatchewan for guidance.