An article entitled "The Rural Brain Drain" written by Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas in the October 6th edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education was brought to my attention. In this week's Extension Lines, I want to frame the situation described in the article and see how it relates to our region. In the second installment next week, the article's focus is on northern Iowa. In the third and final segment, the article highlights actions that can be taken to address the issue. Part 1 of 3:
What is going on in small-town America? Most of the time, rural crisis takes a back seat to the more visible big-city troubles. So while there is a veritable academic industry devoted to chronicling urban decline, small towns' struggles are off the grid.
The most dramatic evidence of the rural meltdown has been the hollowing out--that is, losing the most talented young people at precisely the same time that changes in farming and industry have transformed the landscape for those who stay. This so-called rural "brain drain" isn't a new phenomenon, but by the 21st century the shortage of young people has reached a tipping point, and its consequences are more severe now than ever before. Simply put, many small towns are mere years away from extinction, while others limp along in a weakened and disabled state.
In just over two decades, more than 700 rural counties, from the Plains to the Texas Panhandle through to Appalachia, lost 10% or more of their population. Nationally, there are more deaths than births in one of two rural counties. Though the hollowing-out process feeds off the recession, the problem predates many of the nation's current economic woes. Despite the seriousness of the hollowing-out process, we believe that, with a plan and a vision, many small towns can play a key role in the nation's recovery.
Civic and business leaders in the places most affected by hollowing out will tell anyone willing to listen how it is their young people, not hogs, steel, beef, corn, or soybeans, that have become their most valuable export commodity. Richard Russo, the Pulitzer Prize-winning observer of small town life, believes that any story of small-town America is, at its core, the story of the people who stay and the ones who go. Yet, what is different at this moment is how, in a postindustrial economy that places such a high premium on education, the flight of so many young people is transforming rural communities throughout the nation into impoverished ghost towns. A new birth simply cannot replace the loss that results every time a college-educated twenty-something on the verge of becoming a worker, taxpayer, homeowner, or parent leaves. And as more manufacturing jobs disappear every day, the rural crisis that was a slow-acting wasting disease over the past two decades has evolved into a metastasized cancer.
But if this is just the latest version of the boom-and-bust cycle of frontier towns, why not just let it take its course? We believe that it would be a mistake to abandon the region, because hollowing out has repercussions far beyond the boundaries of the small towns it affects. The health of the heartland is vital to the country as a whole. This is the place where most of our food comes from; it can be ground zero for the green economy and sustainable agriculture; it is the place that helps elect our presidents, and it sends more than its fair share of young men and women to fight for this country. Next week -- Part 2.