What is happening in many small towns — the devastating loss of educated and talented young people, the aging of the population, and the erosion of the local economy — has repercussions far beyond their boundaries.
In 2001, the Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, with the support of the MacArthur Foundation, began a project to interview young adults in America. The Network chose New York City, San Diego, Minneapolis/St. Paul and the Greater Detroit areas for study.
Then, feeling they were missing something, the Network decided it needed a fifth study site in a small, one-school town, far from the big cities of America’s coasts.
Sociologists Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, who had spent their entire careers studying urban issues, were chosen to develop a research site. Because they already had a local connection there, they chose an Iowa town they call Ellis¹.
The researchers moved to Ellis, experienced small town life, and tracked down local high school graduates from the late 1980s and early 1990s to interview about their transition to adulthood.
To their surprise, what Carr and Kefalas found was that the experiences of young people in America’s heartland was, in many ways, a mirror image of the experience of young people in America’s decaying urban areas. They report their findings and their recommendations in Hollowing out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America. Boston, MA: Beacon, 2009.
The biggest question facing anyone who grows up in a small town is whether he or she should leave or stay.
Carr and Kefalas found significant differences in community support for those who left their hometown compared to those that stayed.
Those that left were “a homegrown aristocracy.” Most were children of college-educated parents from the town’s higher socio-economic class. A few were “deserving poor” with some special aptitude or talent.
The community selected these kids, groomed them for bigger things not available at home, supported their achievements, and send them out into the world, never to return. They became Achievers to whom the community pointed with pride.
Those that stayed in their home communities were not considered worthy of attention. Stayers were from the lower socio-economic class, began working at early ages to the detriment of their school studies, and moved quickly into full-time work, parenthood, marriage. In school, the Stayers’ slipping grades and poor attendance were ignored: Those kids didn’t matter.
An in-between group the authors call Seekers were not satisfied with their options if they stayed in Ellis — a dead-end job and marriage to their high school sweetheart — but lacked the money or interest to try college. Many of the Seekers chose the military, which draws a significant portion of its recruits from small towns in America’s heartland.
A little further down the road, those who make the initial decision to leave usually after graduating high school, must decide whether to return to the cozy familiarity of their hometown or continue building lives elsewhere.
Some of Ellis kids who left, came back. Carr and Kefalas identified two distinct groups of returnees.
The High Flyers were folks who had good career opportunities elsewhere but chose to come back because they had jobs they could do in Ellis, had family in the area, and valued the small town lifestyle. Ellis greeted the High Flyers enthusiastically.
The other group, the Boomerangs, started out as Seekers, eager for a more exciting life, but come home dissatisfied after a couple of years of college or a tour of military duty. The Boomerangs re-entered the community, unwelcomed and largely unnoticed.
Although I live far from Iowa, the patterns and personalities described in Hollowing Out the Middle are familiar in my Upstate New York community. School enrollment is declining. The median age is increasing. There are rising levels of poverty, notably among working age people.
In my next post, I’ll look at specific ways rural schools are undermining the communities in which they exist.
¹ To protect the privacy of those whose stories are told in the book, the name of the town, names of the residents, and identifying details were changed in the book.