Monday, September 28, 2009

New study of rural brain drain

A high-profile story in last week's Chronicle of Higher Education features the headline, "The Rural Brain Drain." It is written by Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, and it promotes their forthcoming book. Carr and Kefalas received support from the MacArthur Foundation's Network to document "how 21st century Iowans were trying to survive in the postindustrialized, global era." They did so by moving to "Ellis," in northeastern Iowa, which they call "a typical small town." There they conducted numerous interviews, while also observing what they could as residents.

Many of their findings, including those related to adolescent and young adult residents, are pretty depressing.

Our year and a half spent interviewing the more than 200 young people who had attended the town's high school in the late 1980s and early 1990s led us to categorize our young Iowans according to the defining traits of where their lives had taken them by their 20s and 30s. The largest group, approximately 40 percent, consisted of the working-class "stayers," struggling in the region's dying agro-industrial economy; about one in five became the collegebound "achievers," who often left for good; just 10 percent included the "seekers" who join the military to see what the world beyond offers; and the rest were the "returners," who eventually circled back to their hometowns, only a small number of whom were professionals we call "high fliers." What surprised us most was that adults in the community were playing a pivotal part in the town's decline by pushing the best and brightest young people to leave, and by underinvesting in those who chose to stay, even though it was the latter that were the towns' best chance for a future.

The paradox was summed up for us early during our time in Ellis by the local high school's guidance counselor, who informed us that "the best kids go while the ones with the biggest problems stay, and then we have to deal with their kids in the schools in the next generation." These "best kids" are the high-achieving, most-likely-to-succeed students destined for college—the achievers. The ones with the biggest problems, the stayers, get trapped in the region's fading economy. So as achievers are pushed, prodded, and cultivated to leave, and credit their teachers for being integral to their success, the stayers view school as an alienating experience and zoom into the labor force because few people are invested in keeping them on the postsecondary track, and the lure of a regular paycheck is hard to resist.

Also of interest to me were the authors' reasons for why we should care about what they call the "hollowing out" of rural America--this loss of the most talented:

We believe that it would be a mistake to abandon the region, because hollowing out has repercussions far beyond the boundaries of the small towns it affects. The health of the heartland is vital to the country as a whole. This is the place where most of our food comes from; it can be ground zero for the green economy and sustainable agriculture; it is the place that helps elect our presidents, and it sends more than its fair share of young men and women to fight for this country.

I hope they are right that the health of the heartland is vital to the entire country, but if it is, it seems to me that most metropolitan residents don't realize that. As for the potential to be "ground zero for the green economy and sustainable agriculture," I have to ask if we really need rural places for that. Can't the green economy and sustainable agriculture be conducted at the urban fringe, if not in urban areas themselves? (Read posts here, here, here and here). Finally--and I hate to be so pessimistic--if rural America dries up and blows away (to use what I consider to be a rural expression--or at least one from my own rural childhood), won't poor urban kids pick up the slack to fight our wars? And won't urban dwellers be relieved finally to be free of the tyranny of the Iowa caucuses!

Read the entire Chronicle story here.

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