New book released about saving small town Iowa, Midwest

HollowingOutSmall towns in Iowa and the Midwest encourage their brightest young people to leave, and don’t invest as much in those most likely to stay, two sociologists write in a new book called “Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America.”

The “brain drain” is nothing new, but Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas, two Philadelphia sociologists who lived in small-town Iowa in 2001, found that schools and adults are in many ways hastening the decline of their towns by pouring their resources into the 4.0 students headed for careers in law or medicine in other parts of the country.

C students must soldier through high school, go to community colleges often geared as springboards to four-year institutions, and then fight for scarce jobs in their hometowns.

“The difference now, as opposed to 25 years ago, was you had an agro-industrial economy that was perfectly capable of absorbing those who stayed,” Carr said in a telephone interview. “Invest more shrewdly in those who are likely to stay.”

Seven hundred non-metropolitan counties in the U.S. lost 10 percent of their population between 1980 and 2000, and that decline will likely accelerate as deaths outpace births in many of the same counties, Carr said.

Small towns must find ways to build sustainable industry to replace shuttered factories, Carr and Kefalas write. They must retain their brightest young people and get job training for non-collegebound young people.

If they don’t, “in 50 years they’ll be a much smaller dot on the landscape than they are now,” Carr said.

Carr and Kefalas and their two-year-old daughter lived in Sumner, north of Waterloo, for the summer of 2001, and centered much of their research on the northeast Iowa town. They refer to Sumner as “Ellis” in the book, and changed some people’s names, which is standard practice in sociological research.

Their research began as an inquiry into the lives of young adults from modern rural America, but evolved into a book about small towns, and what they must do to survive.

“It became clear to us that the young adult story is an interesting one, but it sort of speaks to this larger issue about the future of small towns,” Carr said.

They interviewed successful Sumner natives all over the United States, went to meetings of the Sumner Rotarians, and worked closely with several city and school officials.

The authors live in Philadelphia. Carr teaches sociology at Rutgers University, and Kefalas teaches sociology at St. Joseph’s University.

Their research was funded by the MacArthur Foundation. The book is published by Beacon Press in Boston.

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