How to Reverse the Rural Brain Drain

The future of rural America looks increasingly bleak: fueled by the rise of agribusiness and the corresponding decline of family farms, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and the flight of young people to urban centers, rural communities have been losing their populations for decades, and now they're close to the breaking point. Since 1980, more than 700 rural counties—most of them in the middle of the nation, running from North Dakota down to Texas—have lost 10 percent or more of their population. In response, a number of rural areas have enacted initiatives to help lure residents back. In 2003, Ellsworth County, Kans., for example, began offering free 15,000-square-foot lots to families who could get preapproved by a bank and begin building their home on the lot within a year. But in an intriguing new book, Hollowing Out the Middle, husband-and-wife authors Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas argue that it will take more than just free land initiatives to reverse rural America's brain drain—it will require that the towns themselves adopt a new way of thinking.

How should they do this? First, by changing their attitudes toward their high-school graduates. Small towns traditionally put all their efforts behind the smart students (whom the authors label "Achievers"), pushing them out to four-year universities in cities, where they are much more likely to succeed and, unfortunately for the town, much more likely to stay. Students who are less accomplished or driven are given little support, but they are also the ones who are most likely to remain in their small towns post-graduation. In order to make sure these kids succeed, and thus benefit the community, the authors argue, they need to be better trained in areas such as computer technology, health care, sustainable agriculture, and green energy, areas geared toward the modern global economy. Rural towns should also capitalize on the federal stimulus package by investing in green agriculture and energy, say the authors, and work on attracting immigrant populations, who can help revive dying towns through their sheer numbers.

To research the decline of rural America, Carr and Kefalas spent six months in a 2,000-resident town in northeastern Iowa (given the pseudonym Ellis in the book), where they interviewed hundreds of current and former residents, whom they categorized as Achievers (those who leave), Stayers (those who remain), Seekers (those who leave to travel or join the military), and Returners (those who leave and come back). They spoke to NEWSWEEK about their experience there and about what they believe can be done to stop the emigration from this country's heartland.

Why is it important that we care about rural America's brain drain?
Carr:
A nation is really only strongest when all of its parts can contribute and all of its parts are healthy. Rural America has a hugely symbolic resonance for the rest of America. More fundamentally, this is a place where most of our food comes from; it's also a place that disproportionately has people serving in the armed forces.

But if the brain drain forces these towns to die out, wouldn't those qualities just get shifted elsewhere?
Carr: The argument you're making is sort of akin to the boom-and-bust argument. Frontier towns died and the country was fine because that's just the cycle. That's true to a certain extent, but what's different here is [that] the scale of it is pretty massive. Not every small town is at the same stage of hollowing-out, but the fact is the majority of these towns are tending towards the hollowing-out stage, and unless it's addressed, it's going to get worse. We're talking not just the Midwest, but throughout the Texas panhandle, Appalachia, in Louisiana, in Maine, in West Virginia, and Vermont. The other thing that makes it different is that this has been a slow-burning issue. Boom-and-bust towns grow traumatically and they contract just as traumatically—they flourish and they die. But [in this case] it's gone under the radar because of the slow-burning nature of it.

A lot of people have argued that these small towns' demise is inevitable. Isn't there a case for letting these places die?
Kefalas: Sixty million Americans [one in five] live in rural America. I strongly believe we wouldn't be asking the question, should we let the inner city die? Should we let other communities wither and fall by the wayside? I think we have a moral obligation to these communities, an economic need to sustain them—this area is where our food comes from, and it's going to be ground zero for the renewable-energy revolution, so I don't think it's good for America or for these communities to say, "Well, let's just go through some Darwinian process of natural selection and the strong will survive and the weak will die." With an investment, with a plan, with renewed energy, it will be great for America and the region. We won't be able to save all of the small towns, but saving a number of them will be good for the country as a whole.

What about turning these areas into "Buffalo Commons”-type spaces, as proposed by Frank and Deborah Popper more than two decades ago, which would revert depopulated lands to their natural wildlife habitats? Even big cities like Detroit are proposing demolishing some areas and replacing them with green space.
Kefalas: There's some legitimacy to that argument. That is happening in the northern plains of Kansas, for example, where this was not very viable, arable land, where these areas were not very populated. So they have been evacuating these areas, almost, and reimagining them as these "Buffalo Commons." I think creating these green zones and letting the land go back to a more sustainable and natural state is potentially quite good and useful. Certainly some of those communities will have to face that decision, but I think many more have so much to contribute.

How did the people of Ellis respond to your solutions for curbing the brain drain?
Carr: No bunch of people you write about are going to be thoroughly delighted; there's going to be a fair amount of rancor, and that's healthy. You need to use that as a steppingstone to reexamine what you're doing and say: Could we do something better? Could we make those linkages between secondary and postsecondary education better, so that high school is not just geared for people going on to a four-year college degree? Could we retrain people to be able to be competitive in industries that are a growth industry in Iowa, like biotech and nursing and wind energy? Could we begin to think differently about the stranglehold that big industry has on the heartland?

Kefalas: In Ellis, people very clearly saw what is in their future, and I think this is something that the mayor, chamber of commerce members, and parents are all very clear about. The mayor on several occasions told me, "I'm worried we won't make it." There is a sense of fear and anxiety. But the battleground is ultimately going to be, how do we fix it? Reimagining education undoes a time-honored tradition of "Well, we send our best kids away—that's kind of what we do." What we're saying is, let's take a deep breath and think about this whole process of how you educate your young people.

Your book seems something of a rebuttal to those who have embraced the ideas of urban theorist Richard Florida, who argues that places thrive and prosper when filled with young, creative types and that communities should aim to lure or retain those sorts of people.
Kefalas: Florida is right; it's just that he's looking at one side of the coin, and we're looking at the other side of it. He's influenced folks all over the country to bring the creative class in and really develop a community. Unfortunately, the challenges for Iowa or western Pennsylvania or Michigan to make their creative class grow and bring their people in is maybe not the best solution for them.

Carr: Florida's argument is flawed because if you adopt that approach pretty much anywhere, you buy into the Field of Dreams notion that "if you build it, they will come." Michigan bought hook, line, and sinker into the Florida argument and created a "Cool Cities" program where they said, "Look, we have 70,000 college graduates every year; only 7 percent stay in the state; we need to fix that, so what we need is a whole bunch of cool cities because the cool cities will attract people." Well, guess what? The graduates still leave because there are cooler cities.

One of the solutions you propose to help revitalize rural communities is to bring in immigrant populations. Might that cause resentment and exacerbate the exodus of people from those towns?
Kefalas: It's interesting—when we look at ways to solve the depopulation problem, we keep coming back to the immigration solution because it's the one thing we know that works. But it's a very volatile solution. In Sioux City, Storm Lake, Ottumwa, all over the rural South and Midwest, the arrival of immigrants, from Somalia, from Latin America, from Mexico, is rapidly transforming these communities and keeping their schools open, keeping companies going, keeping Main Street alive, keeping churches alive. Folks understand—and certainly governors all over the region understand—the power of these folks to transform aging and demographically vulnerable communities.

Carr: It's not that this is a magic solution. One of the things we're very careful to write about in the book is that that also has to be linked to fundamental changes to how workers are treated in agribusiness. One of the issues with Hispanic workers in the Midwest, and part of the animosity that some people feel toward them, is that, yes, when they showed up, wages went down. But they didn't cause that. Agribusiness basically uses undocumented workers to depress wages. And the working conditions are nothing short of atrocious. The only response from the federal government has been the multimillion-dollar raid on Postville, Iowa [in May 2008]. The thinking has to be very bold on this in terms of changing the labor practices and changing our immigration practices away from interdiction and more toward pathways to citizenship for longtime undocumented workers.

Another way to bring people back is to, of course, create jobs. But as you point out in your book, there is the boredom factor—small rural towns have little diversity or diversions. How do small towns attract young people back without those qualities?
Kefalas: There are people who are going to leave, and I don't think there's anything that's going to stop them from leaving. But there are people maybe with young families or who tried urban living and wanted to opt out and try something else, who could be lured to the region—maybe not every 22-year-old, but maybe a 32-year-old who would think, "This is great. I can raise my kids, I can buy a gigantic house. And as long as I have the digital infrastructure, I can telecommute. I can have a very good quality of life." I think the lifestyle rural communities have to offer is really more compatible for young families. There are also ways to lure back professionals through more aggressive tuition breaks for medical students [in exchange for a commitment to return to the community after graduation], which I think is going to become more appealing as students take on more and more debt. And finally, the other thing we want to talk about is pushing the development of our community-college students, creating that infrastructure to match up economic demands for the regional economy with the young people who are most likely to stay.

Carr: You don't have to build amenities just to lure people. You should be building amenities for everybody—having digital infrastructure and having abundant opportunities for leisure should be something for the commonweal. But the mistake is often to place all of your emphasis on that. In some places there is a critical shortage of professional workers, especially health workers. Part of what can be done is for the kids who are growing up who seem to be on track for that is to identify them early and say, "Look, if you're going to go into medicine or dentistry or law, we're going to give you your tuition if you commit to practicing here for 10 years when you graduate." For the price of graduate school, you're getting a great deal.

Join the Discussion