Does staying in a rural community mean young people must sacrifice economic and educational opportunity? A new study looks at an old dilemma.Book review
A coworker once quipped that a good study is one where the researcher’s stand on the issue is hard to determine. This coworker then offered up Kristin Luker’s Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, an especially even-handed study of activist supporters and opponents of abortion, as a good example. An analogous measure of quality, I think, might be whether a researcher with little personal experience of the subject under study can observe and describe that topic sensitively and well.
Take the new book Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America by sociologists Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas. Admitted urbanites whose original research agenda didn’t include a detour through the country, Carr and Kefalas undertook an ethnographic study of youth pathways to adulthood in a pseudonymous small Iowa town, “Ellis.” But if you didn’t read their confession about not being rural residents themselves, you probably wouldn’t be able to guess it. Carr and Kefalas are sensitive to the ways rural people and places are invoked in national debates, as homogenous representatives of the family values, keenly patriotic, white and working class “real” America on the one hand, or as unsophisticated, uninformed, pre-modern, and perhaps dangerously reactionary hillbillies on the other.
The authors also understand the value of rural life to rural people—tight-knit communities, intergenerational and multiplex relationships, care of land and sense of place. They seem to understand the nuances of social class relationships in rural communities; despite the advantages of small town life, socioeconomic divisions are pernicious and play enormous roles in young people’s lives. And the authors also see clearly the dilemmas of exclusion and inclusion in rural life.
On one hand, communities are by nature somewhat exclusive (“You know you’re rural if you’ve lived here for 30 years and they still say you’re new in town.”), which offers comfort and security to many residents. But to survive, rural places may need to embrace new residents, including the increasing immigrant population. Finally, Carr and Kefalas recognize the danger to rural communities posed by educating rural youth to envision their future lives elsewhere.
Most impressively, the authors keyed into what concerns rural youths about their adult lives and how these quandaries fuel the exodus of young people from rural places. Their dilemma, in short, is between remaining as adults in rural communities where they sacrifice educational or economic opportunities or leaving beloved rural places for expanded options in urban areas. Rural kids find that they must negotiate between their commitment to place and their commitment to the American ideal of individualist achievement, an ideal increasingly difficult to reach as the economic foundations of many rural communities continue to crumble. “When moving up implies moving out,” what should young people do?
Carr and Kefalas tell this story through surveys of roughly 300 former “Ellis” high school students, in-depth interviews with more than 100, and the experience of living in “Ellis” for a time themselves. I suspect their findings will resonate, both with those of us who experienced the dilemma ourselves and those of us who worry about the interplay of education, economics, and rural sustainability.
According to the authors, there are four main responses to the rural quandary. Achievers are “Ellis”’s highest achieving youth, who are enthusiastically encouraged by parents and teachers to focus on their high school studies, pursue higher education, and seek careers outside of town. Not surprisingly, many Achievers hail from the community’s elite and middle-class families, those with “good” last names. Occasionally, Achievers include students from less fortunate families, those whose poverty is considered undeserved, the result of economic vagaries rather than some moral or social deficit. Achievers are groomed to excel, and as a result, the majority leave “Ellis” to attend college and then pursue careers in larger markets.
Stayers (who, interestingly, are overwhelmingly male), on the other hand, tend to be kids who don’t do well in school, don’t care much for school, and were discouraged from investing more meaningfully in their educational pursuits. Many such young people come of age in working-class families and see their parents’ adult lives as models for their own—early marriage and parenthood, and jobs in local factories or service industries. In contrast to Achievers, whose parents strongly discourage after school and summer employment, Stayers often begin working as teens, some to earn money for clothes and cars and others to contribute to their familes’ budgets. For some, this experience clearly reveals the advantages of work over extended schooling. While this trajectory may have led to stable jobs and living wages half a century ago, as adults Stayers find that many of the rural jobs—if there are any—for which they are qualified are volatile, low wage, and lacking in benefits. On the other hand, Stayers often note their appreciation of small town life, including knowing one’s neighbors well, being with like-minded people, and raising children in a safe and known environment.
Whereas Achievers are hot house flowers nurtured to leave “Ellis,” Seekers tend to be average students who nonetheless have no interest in remaining in their small town as adults. Because they come from families of modest means and aren’t encouraged as enthusiastically by their teachers as are Achievers, Seekers eschew higher education and often turn to the military as a way out of the community. In addition to signing bonuses and the promise of college tuition, the armed forces provide Seekers with the means to see the world outside of “Ellis.” And although many Seekers cite the importance of making a meaningful contribution to their country, their primary reasons for enlisting are economic. In fact, rural kids are vigorously recruited to the military, particularly in this time of war and missed recruitment targets. Seekers tend to remain in the military, but one interviewee in the book expresses frustration that she has little time to attend college classes and that her military training does not count for much on the job market.
Young people who leave “Ellis” but come back, Returners, fall into two categories. First are the High-Flyers, Achievers who, for a variety of personal and economic reasons, return to rural communities. High-Flyers are much sought after by states experiencing significant rural outmigration, and several marketing campaigns are underway to encourage Achievers to return home. These highly educated, professional people are seen by many as the key to economic revitalization. The second category of Returners are Boomerangs, who were originally eager to explore the world outside of “Ellis” but ultimately were disappointed enough to return. Some disliked more urban places or college, and others simply missed their communities and proximity to family. Boomerangs, who tend to be female, obtain more education than Stayers but less than Achievers, earning degrees from vocational schools or community colleges. Upon return, Boomerangs tend to settle into rural adulthood quickly, marrying and having children early. Like Stayers, Boomerangs far prefer rural life to other alternatives.
What emerges from Carr and Kefalas’s descriptions of “Ellis”’s young people is a snapshot of how rural decline is happening. Teachers encourage able elite students, who leave town, rarely to return. The less educated but more locally invested stay, or leave for a short while before they return, filling the low wage jobs that remain in diminishing economies. Only a very few professionals are lured back, and then often for reasons more personal than economic, belying the assumptions behind marketing campaigns intended to woo High-Flyers. As the cycle continues, fewer people remain in small towns, fewer still with the training and support to attempt revitalization. Ultimately, rural places become ghettoized.
But sociologists are wont to offer hope, and so Carr and Kefalas offer some suggestions for how rural places might do a better job of retaining their youth. Importantly, they note the irony of investing heavily in youth who are destined to leave rural communities for opportunities elsewhere. As some rural education researchers have observed, many rural educators buy into the cosmopolitan view of educational purpose, wherein education is divorced from place and local knowledge and instead lionizes cosmopolitan values and individual achievement. Carr and Kefalas encourage policymakers, educators, and others to turn their attention to Stayers and Boomerangs, those who will remain in rural places and will be most interested in their viability. The authors recommend, for example, stronger relationships between local high schools and community colleges and the establishment of career academy, dual credit or transition programs for potential Stayers and Boomerangs. In my mind, such investment also includes place-based approaches to K-12 education that link curriculum and instruction to local community needs, including economic development. What really strikes me about this recommendation from Carr and Kerfalas is that it is in stark contrast to the oft-touted (and undertheorized) suggestion that all will be well if only we educate kids to enter the middle class, and that once there’s a large enough middle class in rural places, “good” values and behaviors will prevail, leading to economic growth and more democratic, just communities. Clearly, this hasn’t happened, and just as clearly, the middle-class teachers in “Ellis” have not necessarily served their impoverished charges well.
Carr and Kefalas also advocate “economic gardening,” wherein local entrepreneurial talent is nurtured and supported by investment and gifts of land on which to build new businesses. Carr and Kefalas offer other recommendations, including thoughtful management of immigration to encourage local growth while mediating hostilities between newcomers and oldtimers. Capitalizing on the green technology movement and economic stimulus monies are suggested as well.
I could complain about the wide theoretic leap from Carr and Kefalas’s findings to some of their recommendations, but this would be disingenuous given that nearly all sociologists and education researchers feel compelled to prescribe therapies for the ailments they study. More importantly, though, I think that the story told in Hollowing Out the Middle has rarely been shared in such an accessible way (with the exception, maybe, of Michael Corbett’s Learning to Leave). There’s plenty of literature on these issues in obscure rural education or sociology journals, read mostly by rural education researchers and sociologists. But the ethnographic approach of this book works well for a wider readership and goes a long way towards untangling the issues associated with the rural “brain drain.” My hope is that Carr and Kefala get that wider readership and inspire rural communities, local and state policymakers, educators, and young people to re-imagine their rural destinies. As the authors point out, the existence of small towns may in fact depend on just such re-imaginings.
Caitlin Howley is a Senior Advisor for Education and Research in the Appalachian Regional Office of ICF International.