Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Clog in the Brain Drain

By most accounts, the first half of the 1940s was an exciting time to be living in the rural “neighborhood” in which I (and my father before me) grew up. There was, of course, anxiety throughout the country about the war, but it was also hard to ignore how much of a boon World War II had been to farmers. At the same time, the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 was enabling sparsely populated areas such as this to get “on the grid.”

Electricity is today so much a part of our daily existence that I know I, for one, completely take it for granted. It was new enough then, though, that the wonder of such things as vacuum cleaners, washing machines, electric lights, and more was certainly not lost on country people who had almost literally been given what we always seem to be wishing for: more hours in the day. While electricity was making the land more able to support greater production by providing power to large irrigation wells, it was simultaneously giving farm wives and children something novel to them. Farm life was still hard, but household and farmyard chores that had previously required hours of drudgery to complete were now often a matter of minutes. For many of these people, this allowed more leisure time than they had probably ever had before.

In our neck of the woods, people responded to this extra free time in a uniquely American way: they built a baseball field. There were enough children and young people nearby to make games possible, and enough neighbors cared enough about the project to bring it to fruition. One land owner donated a few acres of flat ground in the corner of an otherwise very hilly pasture, and gradually fences, bleachers, and even lights were erected. In the 1970s (around the time my dad was entering high school), a nice metal building was put up that would double as a community center and concession stand - complete with a hood and grill that would allow parents to serve up some of the best hamburgers I ever tasted. A playground was built to entertain the kids who weren’t out on baseball field. My siblings, cousins, and I all have very vivid memories of times playing there.

Gradually, however, something started to change at the ballpark. By the time I was old enough to be on a baseball team in the mid 1980s, some of the original families who had helped establish the area (and the ballpark) had nearly died out or moved completely away. My extended family seemed to have large families for the time, but these families of 2 to 5 children were small compared to what their parents had raised. Contraception had become as widely available here as virtually anywhere else in the country, and the mentality had changed from “having more children around will help us get all of the necessary work done” to “we can’t afford to have any more children.” The teams I played on already had to bring in a few “ringers” from town to fill out the roster; my brother, nine years my junior, played during some of the last years that a team could be fielded.

In the first few years of the 21st Century, there were almost no members of my generation in the surrounding area and certainly not enough children for a baseball team (even now, after a few more of us have returned to the neighborhood, we could probably only come up with half a baseball roster - and it would have to be co-ed). Just about 60 years after the ballpark was built, the fences and lights were sold off, the outfield planted with NRCS-approved windbreaks, and the old “pop stand” hauled off to serve as a storage building on the corner of a cornfield. The concession stand continued to serve as a community center, but it has since become unusable due to burst pipes during this past winter (it is currently in a purgatory of contractors bidding and the neighbors trying to decide what to do with it). And the playground has fallen into disrepair, with a tree growing up around the bottom of the slide.

The same pattern of aging, shrinking communities is repeating itself throughout rural America. This is documented a book published this year by husband-and-wife sociologists Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas, entitled Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America. A few weeks ago I came across an article in The Rural Sociologist called, simply, “The Rural Brain Drain,” in which Carr and Kefalas outline their book.

The authors start by recounting the grim statistics: in little more than 20 years, more than 700 rural counties lost 10 percent or more of their population. About half of all rural counties in the United States have more annual deaths than births. Perhaps worst of all, the out-migration of young people - especially most of the college-educated “best and brightest” - from rural to urban areas has “reached a tipping point,” with consequences that “are more severe now than ever before.” To study the reasons for this phenomenon, Carr and Kefalas spent a year and a half living in a northeastern Iowa town of 2,000 people, interviewing more than 200 young graduates of the local high school (both those who had left and those still living in town).

By their reckoning, the 20 and 30-somethings the authors met fell into four general groups (with some overlap between them). “Stayers” were generally under-achieving students who often came from less affluent families and went on to fill blue-collar jobs in the community. “Achievers” were most of the kids who went on to college, very few of whom came back to town. “Seekers” were similar in background to the stayers, but wanted to see the world - often by joining the military. And “returners” were those young people who (obviously) returned to town after some time away. About 30 percent of the people the authors interviewed were returners, but only a very small number of them were the highly educated, professional returners they call “high fliers.”

Their interviews with these various categories of young people led Carr and Kefalas to the two-pronged thesis of their book, which they state in their Rural Sociologist article by writing:

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’ [sic] best chance for a future.
Now, most of you who grew up in towns like the one Carr and Kefalas visited would not have been “surprised” the way they were by the first half of that statement. I spent quite a bit of time during high school feeling pretty schizophrenic because of the mixed messages I was being given: so much of my identity was wrapped up in being from my hometown, I had been taught to love my hometown, but I was fully expected to get the heck out of dodge and only return for holidays (if I knew what was good for me).

The parents and teachers the authors met weren’t surprised by this paradox, either. At one point, Carr and Kefalas dropped what they seem to have thought was a bombshell that it took outsiders to see on the principal, telling him the school was systematically encouraging what were potentially the town’s best civic leaders to leave for good. Their response was essentially a shrug and a “that’s what we’re supposed to do” kind of statement.

The part of their statement about stayers being the best chance for a future for these towns is something to think about, though. The authors discuss how, after spending so much time and energy getting achievers ready to leave, many small towns are focusing primarily on getting high-fliers to come back as a way to rejuvenate their communities. However, very few of these programs seem to have had much success (which stands to reason, as there just aren’t that many of the white-collar jobs these young people have been encouraged to do in most small towns). What these towns should be focusing on more, the authors say, is working with what they have: spending more time when future-stayers are in school on helping them improve their own lots, and the corollary of helping young adult stayers become stronger leaders in their communities.

Carr and Kefalas don’t have everything right: a year and a half doesn’t seem to have been enough for them to really “get” small-town people; as well-intentioned as they are, they still seem condescending about their subjects (referring snidely in the book’s introduction about the gun cases in many living rooms, for example); they try too hard to draw parallels (and moral equivalents) between urban and rural problems; they seem to blithely accept that the way the film Food, Inc. portrays current - and ideal - agricultural practices is accurate and unbiased. They look to government (including the Obama administration’s stimulus fund) for too many of their solutions. And, as far as I can tell, they never address the impact wider acceptance and availability of contraception had on the demographics of rural America, but rather toss around terms like “corporatization of agriculture” and “globalization” as reasons for the problem’s compounding impact. Bill Kauffman, writing in The Wall Street Journal, says of one of the authors’ claims about interactions between economic classes, “[it] is so howlingly inaccurate that only displaced urban academics could believe it.”

But I think their two basic points are correct. First, by defining success as moving away, people in small towns impose a certain exile on high-achieving young people; conversely, if moving away is success, then staying is failure… and young adults who stay are often looked upon as failures for doing so. Second, while it would be nice (and it’s worth pursuing, to some extent) to get those young people who have left to come back, it is absolutely vital for rural communities to focus more on maximizing the potential of those who stay.

Some of the ideas Carr and Kefalas have for placing greater emphasis on the needs of stayers are laid out in an essay they wrote for the Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business magazine:

Matching students not headed for university with appropriate vocational or community college programs and nurturing their interests through internships and training will prepare them for new, developing economic opportunities. Such partnerships require close collaboration among business and civic leaders, elected officials, and secondary school and community college administrators. Business leaders and educators should partner to counsel younger workers—those not headed to four-year colleges—to cultivate the right skills and interests to meet the new demands for labor in their region. That partnership will need to develop pathways for the next generation to pursue opportunities that may have only come into existence in the last five years, such as in medical technology, wind energy, or sustainable agriculture.
Again quoting Bill Kauffman in The Wall Street Journal, this “language of policy (‘invest more efficiently’) is inadequate to what is really a crisis of the soul.” But, however people smarter than I figure out how to do it, the “stayers” must be nurtured. They are small towns’ future, for better or worse. Their hometowns can make it “better” by raising the expectations we have for them. If we treat them like leaders, they will take on leadership roles. If we expect them to be losers, we will get exactly what we expect (and deserve). Not all of the “brains” have been drained out of our communities; we just need to learn to value the ones we still have.


  1. Incredibly thought-provoking piece, Bret. Thanks. I really like the pictures, too - when I saw the first one of the octagonal merry-go-round, I knew exactly what I was looking at, even though it had been years since I spun on it. I think of that field often, whether it's playing in the softball culture of another smallish town, or as a frustrated baseball fan, exclaiming "Nine fat farmers could hit better than these bums right now" and remembering the days (was it Tuesday and Thursday nights?) when nine 9 or more of the proverbial "fat farmers" would give it a go on that field.

    The elucidation of the suicidal flaw in small town demography - that success is to be found "anywhere but here" - is a fascinating and powerful one. Its name must be spoken, and its falsehood shouted from every water tower and grain elevator in the land in an attempt to break that spell.

    Kauffman, in the WSJ article, does a very good job identifying another problem - school consolidation. I recently drove through a very small town - it was literally a grain elevator, a church, and a grade school - presumably all drawing the surrounding population to it, and thought of the same thing. There's a perfectly good, relatively large city within 8-10 miles; why does this place still exist? I don't know the answer to that question, but I suspect at least part of the answer is just plain cursed stubbornness, and that's a good thing.

    What's wrong with small schools? Our grandparents learned on the prairie in one-room schoolhouses with at most two separate grades for all of the school-age children. What would be so wrong with stepping in that direction today? The cynic in me thinks the towns are probably giving up their identity to compete in sports, but I'll try not to judge folks' intentions so harshly.

    Overall, though, this reminds me of a book I read that touched briefly on small town economics. A University of Nebraska study found that WalMart, to use an oft-demonized example business, doesn't kill the towns it sets up shops in, it kills the towns next door. The reason for this is that a town's economic viability is not determined by who gets the money in the town, but which way the money goes across the city limits. If it goes to the next town over, or to an internet store matters little; that more money goes out than in, in general, makes all the difference.

    The same could be said for human capital. Which is only surprising in that it's surprising at all.

    One last thing from me: part of the trap, I've discovered, keeping those who leave out, is that they often get married when they're off in "the big city," and often that spouse is incredibly skeptical to such a foreign, apparently-isolated life. It's not an impossible issue, of course, but I suspect many who would consider returning stop as soon as they recognize that little speedbump.

    Okay, one *last* last thing. I wonder if the "success is found elsewhere" stigma affects that demographic gradient in a more subtle way, in addition to driving people out. Does that stigma affect the perception and reception of those returning, and those coming out for the first time - both in the attitude that maybe since they left they think they're better, or since they're back they have failed?

    I've always said that in wide-open spaces there are fewer secrets, but maybe that's one that stays hidden.

  2. Both of you have written facts and suppositions very eloquently. (The same goes for others who frequently grace this site.) Here we read and realize the great minds that were developed in this small rural community. Yes, the discussion of the "ballpark" is still echoing. It is just too difficult to let even a small piece of history disappear. I suppose that is why we are always grateful to have our children return to raise the nest generation of great minds. Perhaps parents who say you must leave to "find a better life" know that it is only then that you realize where that "better life" truly is. The restless feet and the need to experience the world can now be calm and happy. On the other hand, I don't believe that it is always the parents saying their young should leave. How many HS grads relish the thought of getting out of here and seeing the real world. But, in reality, how many of them continue to "remember the good old days." Keep up the good work!

  3. Being a non-native rural dweller, I have to admit that I have always disliked the graduation ceremony at the local high school. I do not know if most small town schools have similar ceremonies or not.

    The part I so dislike is that each child, as they receive their diploma has a paragraph read about them. This paragraph includes what college the child will be attending, all scholarships the child was offered, what they will be studying, and any sports they will be playing. I'm sure this is great for the families who are high achieving, college bound and can afford college tuition...but I always feel for the students who are going straight into the workforce, or who have babies that they need to raise, or who just can't afford to go to college. They have shorter paragraphs, and they all feel compelled to write (or might be instructed to write by the counselors or administrators) that he or she "plans continue his (her) education in the near future."

    Since we are hosting a high school aged exchange student, I am learning more about the school. This year, all the kids have one class called ICAP (Indvidual Career and Academic Plans), and during this class several times a week they do things like decide what colleges they are interested in (all logged into a website) practice standardized testing, talk to their teacher about college plans. Our exchange students ICAP teacher has been trying to talk her into taking the SAT. Why? I am not really sure, and neither is our exchange student. She is not interested in going to college in the US, it would be difficult since so much of the SAT and ACT tests involve English language vocabulary that she may or may not be familiar just seems that even theses "Individual Career and Academic Plans" are a one-size fits all approach to getting more kids accepted into college, while ignoring the kids who do not have the interest, the capability, or the resources to go to college.

    I think that it would be difficult to grow up in a small town with all of the pressure from the school and the community (as well as any pressure from your own family) about your future. The whole community seems to feel that it is their right to know exactly what you plan to do with your life, and let's face it...most of us at 17 or 18 years old wouldn't have been able to guess what we are doing now.

  4. Bret, this is an amazingly well thought out and written article. There are a couple of changes to rural America that also contributed to the demise of the ball park; 1. The need to farm more ground to justify or maybe just pay for bigger equipment means longer hours at work; 2. Television happened. Why get together to play ball when you could be entertained in the comfort of your own home; 3. Bigger equipment and television makes you not want to go run around a ball diamond. The other thing that may have contributed to this brain drain is that for so long college was only for rich city kids and so when a generation of country schooled farmers realized that with the new machinery and more ground along with the new acceptance of working on credit they felt they could send their kids to college to get an education that was never possible to them and save their kids from a life of back breaking work. I think that the point about satisfying the desire to see the world first is a good point. But for whatever reasons the ball park is a mess and our small towns desperately need their young people to come home.

  5. I love this article, Bret! Adam and I both have fond memories of that ball diamond (him moreso than I do--I think that is one of the reasons why he drags us to his softball games still today).

    I have to admit that I have had the menacing thought of not making it until you leave. I was never taught that, but somehow there was always that underlying attitude that leaving the country meant sophistication, more money, a better way of life. The problem is that it takes about ten years or so to realize that that is wrong and by then you are faced with sacrificing the life you've built for ten (or more) years to go back. Even though my husband and I both talk very fondly of farm life, our daughter has an automatic snobbery towards that type of living. Her current biggest attempt to battle me when she's in trouble is to say, "Mom, you don't understand. You grew up in the country." In those moments, I always understand why my grandma used a paddle to whip bottoms (and am tempted to do the same).

    I couldn't help but think of a similar mentality that occurs in the 'hood'. How many times are we told of stories of people who overcame growing up in the hood and being able to leave it and make something of themselves. The biggest difference is that they truly are leaving a rougher way of life.

    Which leads me to believe that current generations are just more apt to leave their family ties than previous generations. I don't know if it is because of advances in technology that make it easier to communicate or what. But, I do think more people are leaving 'home' in search of a different life.