Monday, March 29, 2010

The Book, "Hollowing Out the Middle"

The dance never stops, it only changes tempo by McMorr.
photo source
Abandoned farmhouse, located along Highway 18 in Clay County, Iowa


The rural brain drain and what it means for America....

This past week, there was a book review in the WSJ about the book, Hollowing Out the Middle, by Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas. This is a big story about changing demographics of America's Great Plains.

No, it's not new. It's been going on for a few decades. The Poppers predicted the Great Plains would return to a buffalo commons many years ago. I'm guilty. I grew up there. I left. First I stayed in the cities close by. Then I left my state. I know the four personality types the book describes. I went to school with them.

Right now, we have a situation where people seem to want to return to the land and farm small farms, and have gardens, and food security again. The cities are lacking jobs. The farmers are aging. It would seem obvious that the trend will begin to reverse.

But, it's more complex than that. There are problems, too. The weather is that of the extremes. It's a car culture. Infrastructure is expensive. The farms aren't cute and idyllic anymore, but instead they are industrial fence row to fence row farms. It's tough to make a living. Each year is a gamble that results in stress. It's man against nature and the more man wins the more nature loses.

There are no easy answers and it makes me sad. The concluding thought of the book's review, calls it a crisis of soul. I agree.

Where Home Is, The Heart Isn't


Hollowing Out the Middle

By Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas
Beacon, 239 pages, $26.95
The middle of America, so long treated with mirth, mockery and mawkish condescension by coastal smarties, is shrinking. "The Heartland's most valuable export," write husband and wife sociologists Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, is not "crops or hogs but its educated young people." This migration has devastating effects. From North Dakota to upstate New York, a youthful exodus is "hollowing out many of the nation's small towns and rural communities." To study the problem at its source, Mr. Carr and Ms. Kefalas set up shop in Ellis (as they choose to call it), a streetlight-less town of 2,000 souls in northeastern Iowa. After interviewing scores of graduates from the local high school about their decisions to leave—or remain—in the Ellisian fields, the authors sort their subjects into four categories: Achievers, Stayers, Seekers and Returners.

Achievers score well on SATs and imbibe the poisonous assumption that success can be measured by the distance one travels from home. They are prodded to abandon Ellis by a public school system personified by the high-school principal, a stat-besotted No Child Left Behinder who believes, say Mr. Carr and Ms. Kefalas, "that the job of an effective educator was to nurture and send off talented youth, despite the fact that doing so meant the town was slowly committing suicide."

....The sharpest insight in "Hollowing Out the Middle" is that "small towns play an unwitting role in their own decline" by inculcating, in school and too often at home, the belief that fulfilling one's promise means leaving for the city lights or the manicured suburbs. The purpose of education today, as Kentucky poet-farmer Wendell Berry argues, is to train young people to leave home. And so, the authors note, "the investment the community has made in them becomes a boon for someplace else."

...."Hollowing Out the Middle" is a worthy contribution to a conversation we desperately need to have, but the language of policy ("invest more efficiently") is inadequate to what is really a crisis of the soul. The solution to rural depopulation begins in relearning the value of that simple and underrated word: stay.

Hollowing Out the Middle (Website with video)

....Carr and Kefalas moved to “Ellis,” a small town of 2,000. Ellis is typical of many small towns struggling to survive, and Iowa is typical of many states in the Heartland, aging rapidly. One reason is that many small towns simply aren’t regenerating, but another is that its educated young people are leaving in droves.....The emptying out of small towns is a national concern, but there are strategies for arresting the process and creating sustainable, thriving communities. Hollowing Out the Middle is a wake-up call we cannot afford to ignore-­not only because 60 million Americans still live in rural communities and small towns, but because our nation’s economic health and future is tied to the Heartland.