February 17, 2010
“Hollowing Out the Middle” takes on rural America’s brain drain

This What-are-you-reading post was written by Dave Miller, the branch supervisor at Hope Library, part of the Bartholomew County Public Library system.

Hollowing Out the Middle:  The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America by Patrick J. Carr and Maria Kefalas is well, a mouthful, first and foremost.  It’s also a tremendously important book for dealing with issues that certainly affect us all as Midwesterners and are seismic to people living in rural areas.  I have never seen this issue addressed in a book length format before, and found it to be an enlightening read.  Carr and Kefalas are husband and wife sociologists who take up residence in a small town in Iowa with a population of about 2,000, anonymously known as Ellis, and observed the high school students in the town. 

What they observed can be sorted into four groups.  First, the Acheivers typically had good grades and were heavily involved in extra-curricular activities.  They also almost universally went away to college after school and very seldom returned to town.  Small towns across the Midwest are perpetually siphoning off their most talented children and allowing them to ‘escape’. 

Seekers were the other children that left town, and they typically enlisted in the military for a variety of reasons.  Statistically, small towns have a higher percentage of young adults enlist than more metropolitan areas.  Some of these kids returned home after military life, and others settled in far flung parts of the country.

Stayers are the kids who never leave.  They sometimes drop out of high school, though many do graduate.  While they stay in Ellis for a variety of reasons, (family, farming, work, lack of other viable options) they usually end up trying to get either a factory job or other blue collar work, and there is less and less of that work to go around due to modernization and globalization. 

Lastly, there are Returners, kids who leave town and eventually come back to raise a family or invest their energies into the town.  Returners are a small group, and even rarer are the trained professionals (doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc.) who come back to limited opportunity and decreased wages in a small town. 

All of this combines to leave Ellis in a sad state of affairs, though hardly alone in their fight to stay relevant and viable.  Thus the remainder of the book, in my opinion the most engaging, deals with rural development and efforts to attract these Returners.  There have been a lot of initiatives and incentives, and they have met with mixed results.   In Michigan and other places, there have been programs to reimburse college tuition if graduates will live and work in specific areas.  In Kansas, there are programs that give away land to prospective residents. 

But the problem of rural depopulation and specifically, depopulation of the best and brightest, continues.  The authors make the point that none of these ideas is a perfect solution and that specific communities should have specific solutions based on their unique problems, advantages and disadvantages.  This book isn’t a roadmap to recovery for the rural Midwest, but rather the lessons learned and the ideas presented here should spur communities to start thinking about their own situations and how this vicious cycle can be counteracted.  In all, I found it to be a worthwhile book that tackles a problem that hasn’t gotten nearly enough press or thoughtful consideration.

Posted In: Miscellaneous

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