Rural Brain Drain

I left, too. They're talk­ing about peo­ple like me, in the Chron­i­cle of High­er Edu­ca­tion.

By Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas

What is going on in small-town Amer­i­ca? The nation's mythol­o­gy of small towns comes to us straight from the The Music Man's set design­ers. Many Amer­i­cans think about fly­over coun­try or Red Amer­i­ca only dur­ing the cul­ture war's skir­mish­es or cam­paign sea­son. Most of the time, the rur­al cri­sis takes a back seat to more vis­i­ble big-city trou­bles. So while there is a ver­i­ta­ble aca­d­e­m­ic indus­try devot­ed to chron­i­cling urban decline, small towns' strug­gles are off the grid.

And yet, upon close inspec­tion, the rur­al and urban down­turns have much in com­mon, even though con­ven­tion­al wis­dom casts the small town as embod­i­ment of all that is right with Amer­i­ca and the inner city as all that is wrong with it.

The Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty soci­ol­o­gist William Julius Wil­son famous­ly describes how dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, job­less­ness, mid­dle-class flight, depop­u­la­tion, and glob­al mar­ket shifts gave rise to the urban hyper-ghet­tos of the 1970s, and the same forces are now afflict­ing the nation's coun­try­side. The dif­fer­ences are just in the details. In urban cen­ters, young men with NBA jer­seys sling dime bags from vacant build­ings, while in small towns, drug deal­ers wear­ing Nascar T-shirts, liv­ing in trail­er parks, sell and use meth. Young girls in the coun­try­side who become moth­ers before fin­ish­ing high school share sto­ries of lost ado­les­cence and despair that dif­fer lit­tle from the ones their urban sis­ters might tell.

In both set­tings, there is no short­age of guns, although in North Philadelphia's Bad­lands or Chicago's South Side those guns might be con­cealed and ille­gal, while in small towns guns hang on dis­play in pol­ished oak cab­i­nets in the sit­ting room. Res­i­dents of rur­al Amer­i­ca are more like­ly to be poor and unin­sured than their coun­ter­parts in met­ro­pol­i­tan areas, typ­i­cal­ly earn­ing 80 per­cent what sub­ur­ban and urban work­ers do.

The most dra­mat­ic evi­dence of the rur­al melt­down has been the hol­low­ing out—that is, los­ing the most tal­ent­ed young peo­ple at pre­cise­ly the same time that changes in farm­ing and indus­try have trans­formed the land­scape for those who stay. This so-called rur­al "brain drain" isn't a new phe­nom­e­non, but by the 21st cen­tu­ry the short­age of young peo­ple has reached a tip­ping point, and its con­se­quences are more severe now than ever before. Sim­ply put, many small towns are mere years away from extinc­tion, while oth­ers limp along in a weak­ened and dis­abled state.

In just over two decades, more than 700 rur­al coun­ties, from the Plains to the Texas Pan­han­dle through to Appalachia, lost 10 per­cent or more of their pop­u­la­tion. Nation­al­ly, there are more deaths than births in one of two rur­al coun­ties. Though the hol­low­ing-out process feeds off the reces­sion, the prob­lem pre­dates, and indeed, pre­saged many of the nation's cur­rent eco­nom­ic woes. But despite the seri­ous­ness of the hol­low­ing-out process, we believe that, with a plan and a vision, many small towns can play a key role in the nation's recov­ery.

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