The Rural Brain Drain, Part 2
Last week I shared Part 1 of the article entitled "The Rural Brain Drain" found in the October 6th edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education. This week's Part 2 focuses on northeastern Iowa. In next week's final segment, the article highlights actions that can be taken to address the concern. Part 2 of 3:
For generations, the Corn Belt's biggest employers were factories where building Deere tractors and Maytag washers sustained the region and made it possible for workers on the line to be middle class. But automation and outsourcing dried up the demand for labor and diminished wages. Deindustrialization came later to the country than it did the inner city, but caused just as much harm.
It was not until we spent time living in a typical small town in Iowa and interviewed young adults who came of age there that we came to understand how small towns collude in their own demise. In 2001, we moved to the pseudonymous Ellis, Iowa, population 2,000, a farm-and-factory town in the northeastern corner of the state. We took our family to Ellis to document how 21st-century Iowans were trying to survive in a postindustrialized, global era.
Our year and a half spent interviewing more than 200 young people who had attended the town's high school in the late 1980s and early 1990s led us to categorize our young Iowans according to the defining traits of where their lives had taken them by their 20s and 30s. The largest group, about 40 percent, consisted of the working-class "stayers," struggling in the region's dying agro-industrial economy; about one in five became the collegebound "achievers," who often left for good; just 10 percent included the "seekers" who join the military to see what the world beyond offers; and the rest were the "returners," who eventually circled back to their hometowns, only a small number of whom were professionals we call "high fliers." What surprised us 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 chose to stay, even though it was the latter that were the towns' best chance for a future.
The stayers, get trapped in the region's fading economy. So as achievers are pushed, prodded, and cultivated to leave, and credit their teachers for being integral to their success, the stayers view school as an alienating experience and zoom into the labor force because few people are invested in keeping them on the postsecondary track, and the lure of a regular paycheck is hard to resist.
At first glance, teachers, parents, and kids (stayers and achievers) seem comfortable with that arrangement. Schools devote their energies to the most serious and committed students, and young people who are adrift get focus and maturity, not to mention, money, from work. Yet it is that compromise, that ultimately comes back to betray the community and its young people. In an economy that places such a high premium on credentials and has ever less demand for workers with just a high-school diploma, the choices stayers make doom them to downward mobility and poverty. Moreover, given that these communities are hemorrhaging young people, investing most of their energy in developing young people who will end up elsewhere makes little sense. Next week -- Part 3 of 3.