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In 2001, with funding from the MacArthur Foundation, sociologists Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas moved to Iowa to understand the rural brain drain and the exodus of young people from America’s countryside. Articles and books–notably Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class–celebrate the migration of highly productive and creative workers to key cities. But what happens to the towns that they desert, and to the people who are left behind?
To answer that question, Carr and Kefalas moved to “Ellis,” a small town of two thousand. Ellis is typical of many places 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.
In Ellis, Carr and Kefalas met the working-class “stayers,” trying to survive in the region’s dying agro-industrial economy; the high-achieving and college-bound “achievers,” who often leave for good; the “seekers” who head off to war to see what the world beyond offers; and the “returners,” who eventually circle back to their hometowns. What surprised Carr and Kefalas 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 choose to stay–even though these young people are their best chance for a future.
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 sixty million Americans still live in rural communities and small towns, but because our nation’s economic health and future is tied to the Heartland.
“Hollowing Out the Middle is a fascinating study that brilliantly describes and analyzes the problems of rural towns in America that are emptying out. It will raise national awareness of a serious domestic problem that has largely escaped media, political, and scholarly attention.” –William Julius Wilson, Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor, Harvard University
“Hollowing Out the Middle is a rural panorama of heart-wrenching proportion.”–Stephen G. Bloom, author of Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America and The Oxford Project
“Reminiscent of the great sociological classics, Middletown and Elmtown’s Youth, Pat Carr and Maria Kefalas have produced an exemplary account of coming of age in a midwestern town. This book is required reading for the policy and research community and anyone thinking about issues facing young adults in America.”–Frank Furstenberg, Zellerbach Family Chair of Sociology, University of Pennsylvania, and author of Destinies of the Disadvantaged: The Politics of Teenage Childbearing