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Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America Paperback – Jul 27 2010
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“Written in an easily accessible style for the lay reader, this volume is filled with their observations of life in a rural community that is just “hanging on,” and stories from the young adults they met.”—Journal of Rural Social Sciences
“An intriguing new book . . . [They] argue that it will take more than just free land initiatives to reverse rural America’s brain drain.”—Christina Gillham, Newsweek
“A fascinating study that brilliantly describes and analyzes the problems of rural towns in America that are emptying out.”—William Julius Wilson, Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor, Harvard University
“The authors present a brave and daunting examination of why the most talented, the most productive young people leave our small towns. . . . This book is so generative, so fiercely compelling . . . I urge you to read it.”—Mildred Armstrong Kalish, author of Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression
“The undoing of Middle America is the great secret tragedy of our times. For shining a bright, unwavering light on the unfolding disaster, Carr and Kefalas deserve enormous credit.” —Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?
“Deft and detailed case studies bring the population to life. . . . The authors alert readers to this major change with clarity and compassion.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“A worthy contribution to a conversation we desperately need to have.”—Bill Kauffman, Wall Street Journal
“Deftly researched and written, this book is highly recommended for sociologists, educators, policymakers, and anyone concerned about the future of this country.”—Library Journal, starred review
About the Author
Patrick J. Carr is associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the author of Clean Streets. Maria J. Kefalas is a professor of sociology at Saint Joseph’s University, the author of Working-Class Heroes, and coauthor of Promises I Can Keep. The authors live outside Philadelphia.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
1) The Achievers--those who are not only personally driven to succeed, but praised throughout their communities for their talent and achievements. They earn awards, go off to college, and never return because they have over-qualified themselves to return home.
2) The Stayers--those who want to make a go of it in the only place they have ever called home. They love their families, the community, and the opportunity to raise their kids in the homeland, despite the fact that employment opportunities are limited and the chance to earn high wages low.
3) The Seekers--As Carr and Kefalas put it, "What the Seekers know, with the utmost certainty is that they do not want to stay in the countryside all of their lives."
4) The Returners--Whether an Achiever or a Seeker, the Returners decide in time that there is no place like home, even if that means a lower standard of living or the abandonment of a dream.
As one who left a small town, the descriptions and motivations of each group are spot on. I felt as if I was re-living my own upbringing and decisions. In that regard, the book is gripping. The book's weakness rests in the solutions that Carr and Kefalas propose. They recommend immigration and the broadening of the population base, which have the feel of abstract and sociological solutions out of a textbook. Their attempt to help is honest, but the truth is that no one has the solution.
Due to rapidly aging populations and the steady outflux of the university-educated young, small towns now confront a stark and unprecedented threat to their existence. Economies are faltering, tax bases rapidly eroding, and populations already underserved are finding it nearly impossible to attract health-care professionals, particularly specialists and psychiatrists. "Hollowing out the Middle" breaks little new ground in acknowledging an age-old problem, which has only intensified since the 1980's "farm crisis"....but it does provide a simple analysis of the trends working against Middle America and the way that the small town movers and shakers have only succeeded in aiding and abetting the demise of their communities in many instances. As a long-overdue "kick in the pants", it is hoped that this book could stimulate quick and pragmatic adjustments to timid strategies that have taken hold of Main Street, America.
One such strategy that Carr and Kefalas identify is the "creative class" prescription offered by popular author Richard Florida. Briefly stated, this is the belief that "if you build it, they (the talented young) will come", lured by state of the art libraries, swimming pools, and sculpture parks. "Not so fast", Carr and Kefalas caution...can even spanking new facilities compete with the natural wonders of the mountains, lakes and oceans that other regions offer? And what of the simple fact that professionals can earn more money in the big cities?
Instead of locking into strategies that ultimately may fail, Carr and Kefalas recommend that small towns develop strategies to enable the young people who are "left behind"... the children of the working class, who are seemingly "trapped" in the towns that their more fortunate peers abandon.
The authors also recognize that small towns are fertile grounds for xenophobia, as promulgated by the likes of Iowa Congressman Steve King, and former Colorado politician Tom Tancredo. Small towns must overcome their tendencies to be "isolated islands", and welcome all newcomers including immigrants. High-tech jobs should be pursued, along with much-needed diversification in agricultural enterprises.
"Hollowing Out the Middle", at a mere 170 pages, only touches the tip of the iceberg... but it is a beginning. The alternatives, including a proposal for the "Buffalo Commons" (a strategy which seems to advocate giving the western plains back to the Indians) are not very pretty. A Balkanized, disjointed America of the haves and the "left-outs" is in the future unless actions are taken quickly.
PJ Carr, MJ Kefalas, Beacon press
This book made me face up to being a thoughtless "achiever" from a town like Ellis in the post world war II era. While I never felt coddled by the 8,000 member towns educators, and was taught from a young child that physical work mattered a lot, still the resources available to and directed at a favored social sector made it easy to climb aboard that train. Others, less sure of themselves, maybe too virtuous, less encouraged at home, slowly fell behind. It certainly was not raw intelligence that led to success as an engineer from a "local shift boss college". Many who were left off that train were smarter, many more were just as smart then and admirable "stayers" now, 50 years later.
The authors have it right. More so now for this globalized world. We have to divide those educational and support resources better so the need to leave, and then forget is made no greater than the desire to stay and contribute over a lifetime.
I suspect that the authors have confused correlation with causation, and I would draw the arrow in the other direction: migration from rural areas is a direct result of people following the money. There's an ironic bit of American exceptionalism here -- urbanization is tied to wealth across the globe and throughout history so any explanation of "Ellis" should first decide whether it follows this trend or is atypical. Or to put it another way, cities (and suburbs?) have always offered more diversity and broader horizons, so why is the hollowing out happening now? I find it unconvincing that it's the guidance counsellors of Iowa who are driving this trend!
The real questions for me (unasked here), are whether the specific wealth disparity between urban and rural in the USA in 2010 is in line with other developed nations (and across time?), and whether specific American policies affect the wealth disparity one way or the other. I'm no social scientist, but I've read Omnivore's Dilemma, so off the top of my head I would suggest that volume 2 of this book look at the effects of farm, fuel, & water subsidies, food purchasing habits, free trade agreements, employment patterns in related industries, and transit costs as root causes for the hollowing out trend.
Anyway, what I took umbrage from the authors is their subtle criticism of people's instincts of being afraid of the unknown and preferring the familiar over dealing with the difference. I guess this is coming from someone who, like some of the "High-fliers" or "boomerangs," felt disillusioned and overwhelmed by the cut-throat, fast-paced Ivy league college life...
So, one thing I found myself thinking was "what's wrong with preferring a familiar environment." A liberal myself, I rarely feel annoyed at "left-ist" scholarly work, but this time, I couldn't help but think that these writers had very little sympathy for young people in rural towns. They often seemed to criticize the personal characteristics of being "afraid" or "unable to adapt," and they only briefly defended these fears by distinguishing them from "prejudice" or "ignorance."
So, as someone who tries so hard to belong, but can't keep up with constant change and goodbyes, I found myself with very mixed feelings.
I realize that this isn't a really well-written review, but I wanted to write something, because it was a rare occasion to find that I actually had strong opinions about something I read.