Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America by Patrick Carr & Maria Kefalas
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the majority of our readership doesn’t live in a rural area. I mean, the majority of America’s population doesn’t live in a rural area—that’s what makes it rural, right? Up until about two years ago, neither did I. But since moving to a small rural town in western Kansas (population: 800) just over two years ago, I’ve become very interested and involved in community development, and particularly in the issues surrounding youth and young adults. One significant issue that comes up again and again is this: Is there a solution to the “brain drain”—that is, the reality that the brightest kids often leave for bigger cities and don’t come back? Is the solution to attract more kids back after college, to improve the education of the kids who are planning to stay, or something else entirely?
And, for those of you who don’t live in rural America: does it matter?
Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas, a husband-and-wife team of sociologists, spent nearly seven years researching this topic. They lived for a time in a rural town in northeastern Iowa (which they’ve called “Ellis”) and interviewed hundreds of people, mostly focusing on the young adults who graduated from Ellis’ high school in the 1990s. What they found makes for a fascinating story about the “hollowing out” of middle America, and they argue unequivocally that, yes, it matters, whether you live in New York City or Tribune, Kansas.
The Four Types of Young Adults
They sorted their subjects into four basic categories: Achievers, Stayers, Seekers, and Returners. Achievers are the ones who show promise early on, the ones who are academically (or sometimes athletically) gifted, and typically leave their small communities for college, never to return. Stayers are those who take over the family business or get a job during high school and end up living out their adult lives in the same town. Seekers are those who can’t wait to leave but don’t have the grades or scholarships to do it; they often end up in the military as an escape. Returners are those who come back to their small town after leaving; sometimes out of a sense of responsibility and purpose but often because the outside world turned out to be less pleasant or more challenging than they expected.
The Root of the Problem
This is, of course, a vast oversimplification of the book. Carr and Kefalas devote an entire chapter to each of the four groups, outlining the reasons many of these young people make their respective decisions. Some of what they found is surprising, but a lot of it isn’t. Rural communities expend a disproportionate amount of effort, resources, and training on the very kids that aren’t likely to stay; and the ones who stay often get little attention. It’s a point of pride to be say you had a part in somebody’s success, of course, and it’s become an ingrained habit to send off promising young adults to make something of themselves. However, this inefficient practice is what has gutted so many small communities across the Midwest and it has had a devastating effect.
What troubles me the most is that when they talked to administrators at the Ellis high school, there was no surprise that their smartest kids were being put on a path to leave: it’s what they’d always done, and they knew they were doing it. The problem lies in the fact that decades-old behavior is very hard to change. After you spend ten years training a kid to think he’s “too good” for his small town, can you turn around and convince him that he should stay?
Why It Matters
This matters to me personally, because I struggle between two opinions: wanting to make my own community a place that thrives and attracts more young people; and wanting more for my own children (and the kids I meet here), for them to have experiences and encounter diversity that simply doesn’t exist here. (For instance, I am the only Asian male in the entire county.) Carr and Kefalas make a compelling argument for why the rural brain drain matters (both to the rural communities but also for the entire nation) and then offer some of their insight on possible solutions.
It’s a huge problem that will not be solved easily, and the authors aren’t selling a magic bullet that will address everything. Simply building amenities is not enough to attract young professionals if there aren’t jobs. Small towns have to find a way to give the academically gifted kids the best possible education while laying the foundation for them to return; at the same time, this needs to be balanced by programs that address the Stayers, giving them necessary job skills for the modern post-industrial economy and acknowledging their importance to the survival of small communities. Immigration is a touchy subject, but in many cases the influx of immigrants will play an important part in sustaining small-town economies; finding a way to integrate newcomers is crucial.
There aren’t a lot of easy answers, but Carr and Kefalas do a great job of digging into some of the causes of the hollowing out. I found the writing easy to read and a good mix of the anecdotal and statistical. I highly recommend Hollowing Out the Middle, particularly for those who live in small-town America, but even for those who don’t. This is not a problem that will be solved without support from the majority of the population that lives in metropolitan areas.
Jonathan Liu reads as much as he possibly can. This is an edited version of his review on his books blog.