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.


Pierre DeBois Pierre Debois is Associate Book Editor for Small Business Trends. He is the Founder of Zimana, a consultancy providing strategic analysis to small and medium sized businesses that rely on web analytics data. A Gary, Indiana native, Pierre is currently based in Brooklyn. He blogs about marketing, finance, social media, and analytics at Zimana blog.

11 Reactions
  1. Small town America embodies the moral values that we seem to have lost in the move to impersonal big cities, where no one knows anyone else, and therefore one does not see up close the hurt caused by fraud.

  2. Martin Lindeskog


    This is a moving post. Personally I am a so called “city slicker,” enjoying the pulse of a metropole – but at the same time – I like the down-to-earth mentality in a small town. I have studied in Manchester, New Hampshire, and worked in Troy, Ohio, between 1997 – 2002. I look forward to return to the Land of Opportunity. Could you guide me in my quest for fitting place in the Melting Pot? Please read my post, USA – Land of Opportunity.


    Have you read Life 2.0 – How People Across America Are
    Transforming Their Lives by Finding the Where of Their Happiness by Rich Karlgaard?

    I look forward to Becky McCray’s take on Hollowing Out the Middle; A Call to Duty to Save Small Town America. She has a site called Small Biz Rural and it is “the rural and small town business resource.”

    The city I am living in at the moment, Gothenburg city, had tough problems with economic downturn in the 70’s. The whole city was built on the shipbuilding industry. The welding manufacturer company I worked for, had to start exporting in order to survive. Today, Gothenburg is a logistics hub and a thriving place and business cluster regarding e.g., biomedicine, food industry, design and market communication. Gothenburg will be 400 years old in 2021.

  3. Really moving Post.

    And Great Writing.


  4. Pierre, thanks for bringing this kind of review to Small Biz Trends, and the larger small business audience. It’s been fun to have friends pointing out your review, since I focus on small town business.

    I’ve been reading about the book since it came out last year from the leaders in rural thinking:
    –Reimagine Rural: http://su.pr/2vf58V and http://su.pr/26RkzF
    –Daily Yonder: http://su.pr/2Ohub8
    –The Midwesterner: http://su.pr/2rQhEU

    Carr and Kefalas do a great job of addressing how we prepare our youth, and the consequences for our current approach. My personal focus is on rural business, so of course I would like to have seen more discussion of growing entrepreneurs. However, I think that was pretty far from the authors’ area of interest.

  5. @Vipin, thank you for the compliment

    @GiggleT thanks for the comment

    @Martin — Thank you for bring the review to Becky’s attention I have not read Life 2.0 but will take a look. Sounds similar to Life Inc by Douglas Rushkoff. I will check out your post as well — I think despite the romance of working remote, you may still be bound to a certain region based on industry.

    @Becky — thank you for sharing the links (and for the Tweet discussion on Internet taxation in Oklahoma a while back!). Although I have been out of Gary for a long time, I know a number of people my age that grew up with the concept that to gain a career/life meant leaving the area. It is larger than the “Ellis” towns that are out there, so I know that rural area have been hit much harder with regard to youth flight. I am glad this book review is really helpful to your efforts, and I will make a point to follow you as well. I would love to learn more on what small business are maintaining economic vitality in their regions.

  6. Fergal Kavanagh

    Reading a book like Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America and listening to Lake Wobegon gives the outsider (I am from Ireland) a great feel for what rural america and the mid west is like.

    By the way, the first thing i think when I hear of Gary, Indiana is the song from the Music Man!

    Looking forward to a visit and tour through the mid west and the lost Continent soon.