27 January 2011

just some light reading.

A friend turned me on to a book titled "Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America." I just got it from the Plum Creek inter library system--love our library--and I'm looking forward to digging in.  It's a book about how the community plays a role in the population decline in pushing away their "best and brightest young people" and under investing in the ones that stay in the community.  It is interesting that this book was suggested to me because I've been meaning to address this topic from my own experiences of growing up rural and returning to my rural roots after college, but just never really new how to start explaining it.  I'm looking forward to hearing what the "professionals" have to say about an issue that, well, I can directly relate to.  So after I finish the book, I'm looking forward to thinking it over and writing about it to share with you.  While reading the preface, I was already intrigued by the topic that awaits me in the next 172 pages and want to share with you the part that makes me proud of my rural roots and really why this topic should matter to all of us. 

"Of course it matters," they chorused, and, in their separate ways, they went on to say why small towns are worth saving.  One person talked about how much of the nation's natural resources and the world's food comes from this region and said that this alone should be incentive to devote attention to the challenges facing the countryside.  Another pointed out that if alternative forms of energy and food production are the waves of the future, then the Midwest and rural areas more generally will be ground zero for the rolling out of the green economy and sustainable agriculture.  A third alluded to the historical centrality of the region to the health of the nation and said that, despite the recent downturn in manufacturing and the wholesale reordering of agriculture, the Heartland and its thousands of towns could, with the right policies in place, once again thrum with success.

We had seen firsthand the herculean efforts that some small towns make to survive and the ferocious love that inhabitants feel for their dot on the map. And yet it was in younger generation's stories about coming-of-age in the Heartland that the most important lessons about the workings of small towns were revealed.

...our [the authors] immersion in this issue fueled a great desire to place the hollowing-out phenomenon on the crowded national to-do list.  We do so because we believe that there are more than quaint postcard images of sepia-toned Main Streets at stake.  We should care because the Heartland is the place where our food comes from, it is the place that helps elect our presidents...and it is the place that sends more than its fair share of young men and women.  The future of the many towns that give the Heartland its shape and its sinews is of vital importance, and we believe that ignoring their hollowing out will be detrimental in the short and long terms. Though we are faced with an economic crisis of ever-widening and catastrophic proportions that will undoubtedly siphon our attention and resources, it would be a mistake to overlook the crisis in rural America that has slowly developed over the past two decades.  In many ways the travails of hollowing out small towns and their Main Streets were an ominous harbinger of economic hard times to come. 


  1. I've seen alot of chatter on this book (e.g. A Minneapolis Fed review last month: http://www.minneapolisfed.org/publications_papers/pub_display.cfm?id=4595), but haven't put my request into Plum Creek... yet. I'm just skeptical of one more set of East Coast sociologists coming into the Heartland with preconceptions to prove.

    Mike Knutson from Miner Co (SD) highlighted a review that summed up my concern:
    "You cannot drop into a town for a year and come away with deep understandings. Their claim that “there is probably no other place in American society where the rules of class and status play out with a more brutal efficiency than in the world of a country high school” is so howlingly inaccurate that only displaced urban academics could believe it."

  2. John mentions one of my concerns about Hollowing out the Middle -- that deep understanding takes time. I'd add to it that I believe that if you've been to one rural community, you've seen one rural community. There's a perception among people that small towns are all the same. They are not.

    That said, I believe Carr and Kefalas have produced some important insights. First, as I read the book, I began to recognize how my own behavior contributes to the out-migration of young people. I began to see that it would be wise for me to invest more time in young people who see themselves living in Rural America than in those who can't see themselves here.

    I also think the authors help those of us in rural communities understand what each group of young people (achievers, stayers, seekers, and returners) wants from their lives and the communities they live in. Just as businesses need to understand their customers, rural communities need to understand their potential residents.

    Like most books, Hollowing out the Middle has its strengths and weaknesses. I look forward to reading your comments after finishing it. And keep up the writing. I think it's great that people with a passion for their communities share their thoughts as you do. We need more of it.