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Zocalo: The Rural Brain Drain

Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America
by Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas

“Brain drain” was once good for America. The great minds — Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann — that fled fascism during the 1930s reaffirmed the idea of the U.S. as a land of opportunity, and a haven for scientific progress and intellectual advancement.

But today, a brain drain is hurting America’s heartland. The alarming picture that Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas paint in Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America, a contemporary sociological study, indicates a troubled future for the U.S.

The heartland is often imagined to be the “real” America, where people live close to the land and value hard work. The well-being of the region — which supplies much of the nation’s natural resources and much of the world’s food supply — is crucial to the rest of the country, Carr and Kefalas argue. The heartland is likely to be the center of sustainable agriculture and a new “green economy,” which may well be the country’s ticket to prosperity as a post-industrial society.

Carr and Kefalas argue that unfortunately the bucolic idyll of the place is largely a myth and what is left is threatened with extinction. For over two decades, as Big Agriculture replaced most family farms, many areas have to depend entirely on one industry — one crisis can bring a town to its knees. Economic mobility is limited, leaving people in their 20s and 30s to flee their hometowns for opportunities elsewhere. Though their movement has in some cases spurred the growth of Midwestern cities, it leaves rural communities and small towns with a majority of residents heading towards retirement, leaving too few workers, taxpayers, and consumers to support the areas, and in the worst instances, too few children to fill a school.

To take a close look at this crisis, the authors moved to Ellis, Iowa — a small town in a state seen as an important place to kick off any presidential election, and a place where the agro-industrial economy is dying. (Ellis is the alias of a real Iowa town.) The two college professors stood out enough that local papers took an interest in them as something between celebrities and novelties. The authors note that they blended in more easily while conducting studies in the roughest streets of Philadelphia.

Closely observing a local high school, Carr and Kefalas identified four key groups of young people that define the crisis in the heartland: the achievers, the stayers, the seekers, and the returners. The groups form early in kids’ schooling, the authors note: “There is probably no other place in American society where the rules of class and status play out with more brutal efficiency than in the world of a country high school.” The achievers are the golden children who are actively encouraged to seek opportunities elsewhere — an early admonition that there is a limit to how good life gets in these towns. Unlike the other groups, achievers get preferential treatment. They can be late with assignments and miss classes, because even educators feel bound to pave their way into promising futures that must unfold elsewhere.

Stayers are those who will likely never leave their town, are never encouraged to dream beyond the town limits, and carry on in their family’s often working-class footsteps. They are earmarked by their elders as eternal locals. Seekers are hungry to experience life elsewhere, but have not been identified as achievers. As Iowan comedian Jake Johannsen explains it, “It took me a long time to realize that we were free to go. I was like twenty-one before I was like, ‘We can just leave?’” Finally, those whose lives in the larger world don’t take hold and who eventually return home are the returners. These people, prodigal or otherwise, are seen as the hope for reinvigorating small towns.

Towns have tried various strategies, like tax breaks, to turn more of the under-30 crowd into returners, and to create some economic and social diversity. But Carr and Kefalas’ find that small towns may not be ready for such change. When they shared their findings about brain drain to Ellis leaders, the researchers were met with a “but this is how we do things” attitude, even though the stakes are high — saving small towns and helping more Americans thrive. Though lively and informative, the results of this sociological study are grim.

Excerpt: “The myth of egalitarianism that permeates American consciousness insists that educational institutions offer objective measures of a student’s potential, and once talent gets measured and recognized, those employed by the schools reward diligence and achievement by providing opportunities for pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstrap-style success. In reality, the system tends to place children of the elite in a position of privilege.”

Further ReadingCaught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism and Survival of Rural America: Small Victories and Bitter Harvests

Zocalo Public Square is an amazing non-profit dedicated to expanding the world of ideas. They published this review first. Visit them:  ZocaloPublicSquare.org

*Photo courtesy cwwycoff1.