Hollowing Out the Middle; A Call to Duty to Save Small Town America

Hallowing Out the MiddleI have moved around the United States over the past few years, and whenever I mention my hometown Gary, Indiana, two things come up no matter what:  The Jackson family and the economic downturn of the steel industry of the 70s and 80s that also impacted the city of Gary.  So imagine my feelings after hearing about Hollowing Out The Middle. Written by sociologists Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas, the book examines how the plight of maintaining economic viability in small towns is too often overlooked.  Given the economic uncertainty of the country, the book’s appearance is timely.

Who Stays Home, Who Goes Away

Hollowing Out The Middle focuses on the interviews of the young residents of “Ellis”, Iowa, a small town with a population of 2,000 and “eighty miles from the nearest Starbucks”.   Carr and Kefalas moved to Iowa to understand the migration motives; they note that “only West Virginia loses a larger percentage of college graduates to out-migration.”  The authors divided their interviewed subjects into four separate groups;

  • Stayers, those who feel their lives are best served staying in their town
  • Achievers, those who leave for large cities and educational opportunities
  • Seekers, those who join the military, unable to afford college
  • Returners or “Boomerangs”, those who leave for large cities and later return, rejecting the lifestyle selected for personal reasons

Carr and Kefalas believe that communities over-invest in perceived future Acheivers, yet Acheivers end up not contributing to a town’s future growth. Meanwhile, a town’s transition into its next generation hinges on the Stayers, who drive the local economy but typically have not kept up with training that can lead to higher paying jobs.  Rural town families, educators, and the policies they set create these decisions in their youth. They are often unaware that the aftermath can diminish competitiveness and their ability to recruit new industry and increase the likelihood of negative social problems such as rural meth addiction.

Another surprise is how such investment can be linked to immigration. For example, Stayers can be economically pitted against immigrants through a region’s overreliance on one industry such as agribusiness; in which labor cost have been cut aggressively.   Postville, Iowa, as an example, was the site of one of the largest raids on undocumented immigrants in US history, despite the fact that many were families that had been in the community for decades without incident. The book does mention Iowa programs of in-migration as an example of easing the economic inclusion of skilled-worker immigrants in planned and sociological ways.

Carr and Kefalas cover these topics well without overpoliticizing issues or excessive cynicism.  They also do not stereotype small town life. Having spent time in Ellis while researching the book, the authors feel that the community has “its arms outstretched” with respect to embracing new residents, be it researchers or immigrants.  The authors save their important alarm for the idea that America, as a whole, is overlooking an essential asset to its well being.

“The good news is that there are an abundance of ideas about how to fix rural America; The challenge is that too few Americans are aware we’re at a critical point….If, as a nation, we decide not to intervene, then we must accept a future with a myriad of social problems throughout the countryside, the spread of rural wastelands, and the unraveling of civic institutions such as churches and local schools.”

I really liked the book because it reminded me of past thoughts on preventing communal brain drain.  In 1903 W.E.B. DuBois advocated the concept of the Talent Tenth, a Black American social class that seeks education, then contributes its gained knowledge to the economic well-being of a disenfranchised community.  “Hollowing Out the Middle” offers an evolved version in suggesting that town educators  adjust their methodology in supporting its youth in their educational and career decisions.

Expanding the Scope of Rural Economic Policy is Essential

The concluding segment “What Can Be Done to Save Small Towns” is short. This brevity, however, makes the message to support rural America more urgent and stinging, and there are thorough footnotes for more reading.

The suggestions do not elaborate on the involvement of small businesses or regional businesses.   I find that curious given that the authors also recommend that towns should reconsider the “elephant hunt” – luring jobs through large business projects such as new plants, and focus on supporting small business growth.  But given Ellis’ small size, business readers should give the omission a pass and look towards the examination of state policies for insight.  There are reviews of campaigns, such as Iowa life/Changing and Michigan Cool Cities, and of economic strategies like free land programs.

Who Will Benefit from Reading “Hollowing Out the Middle”

If you are a business owner trying to raise community awareness and state-level policy reconsideration, this book is the right read for starting engagement.  Many towns are working to relaunch their image to stay alive, and there have been few recent sociology books on rural America.  I instantly recalled “Sundown Towns” by James Loewen, which focused on the segregation history of Midwest towns, and there’s also “Worlds Apart” by Cynthia Duncan, which examines rural poverty.

This book rang my bells, with a hopeful spirit. I think it will do the same will for others as well.  It did for the Ellis school board (I’m not giving this away, read the book!).  Hollowing Out The Middle is a good thinking person’s book, meticulous enough to provide supporting details while briefly getting its points across.  Understanding the authors’ view of the Ellis young adults interviewed will make you think, if not take action, on the protection of your town’s future.

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