• September 3, 2015

The Rural Brain Drain

5605 rural brain drain

Steve Schapiro

A road in rural Iowa

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Steve Schapiro

A road in rural Iowa

What is going on in small-town America? The nation's mythology of small towns comes to us straight from the The Music Man's set designers. Many Americans think about flyover country or Red America only during the culture war's skirmishes or campaign season. Most of the time, the rural crisis takes a back seat to 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.

And yet, upon close inspection, the rural and urban downturns have much in common, even though conventional wisdom casts the small town as embodiment of all that is right with America and the inner city as all that is wrong with it.

The Harvard University sociologist William Julius Wilson famously describes how deindustrialization, joblessness, middle-class flight, depopulation, and global market shifts gave rise to the urban hyper-ghettos of the 1970s, and the same forces are now afflicting the nation's countryside. The differences are just in the details. In urban centers, young men with NBA jerseys sling dime bags from vacant buildings, while in small towns, drug dealers wearing Nascar T-shirts, living in trailer parks, sell and use meth. Young girls in the countryside who become mothers before finishing high school share stories of lost adolescence and despair that differ little from the ones their urban sisters might tell.

In both settings, there is no shortage of guns, although in North Philadelphia's Badlands or Chicago's South Side those guns might be concealed and illegal, while in small towns guns hang on display in polished oak cabinets in the sitting room. Residents of rural America are more likely to be poor and uninsured than their counterparts in metropolitan areas, typically earning 80 percent what suburban and urban workers do.

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 percent 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, and indeed, presaged many of the nation's current economic woes. But 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 and credentials, 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 twentysomething 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.

Why does hollowing out matter? Surely there have always been regional winners and losers. Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class celebrates how modern-day boomtowns prospered when the young and the educated flocked to cities like Austin and Chicago in search of good jobs, culture, diversity, and tolerance during the 1990s. But the incipient decline of the Rust and Corn Belts illustrates the darker side of the creative-class story—the fates of the people and places left behind.

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.

As we came to uncover this slow-burning crisis during our research in Iowa, we learned that hollowing out results from a combination of macro forces reshaping nonmetropolitan America: the unfettered rise of agribusiness and big-box retailing that has suffocated local ownership, the decline of unions and blue-collar wages, employers' increased reliance on exploited undocumented workers, and the systemic underinvestment in younger workers entering the new economy's labor force without college degrees. The rise of agribusiness has meant that there are hardly any farmers left in America's agricultural regions: Just 2 percent of Americans operate farms now, and 42 percent of Midwestern farmers earn less than $20,000 per year. Independent family farmers today live more like sharecroppers, and, as the new film Food, Inc. so powerfully shows, the "Jeffersonian ideal of pastoral life" has been subsumed by a farming system dominated by mega-farms and hog hotels.

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 in an old, familiar story, automation and outsourcing dried up the demand for labor and diminished wages. Deindustrialization came later to the countryside than it did the inner city, but has caused just as much harm. Workers with seniority earned $30 per hour and got pensions, while their children, doing the same job, earned one third that amount and nothing for retirement.

Those larger economic trends are only part of the story, though. And 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, with support from the MacArthur Foundation's Network on Transitions to Adulthood, a multidisciplinary research collaborative, we moved to the pseudonymous Ellis, Iowa, population 2,000, a farm-and-factory town in the northeastern corner of the state. Just as the husband-and-wife sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd had traveled to Muncie, Ind. to chronicle how the 20th-century industrial era was transforming the lives of small-town America in their Middletown series, 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 the 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, approximately 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 paradox was summed up for us early during our time in Ellis by the local high school's guidance counselor, who informed us that "the best kids go while the ones with the biggest problems stay, and then we have to deal with their kids in the schools in the next generation." These "best kids" are the high-achieving, most-likely-to-succeed students destined for college—the achievers. The ones with the biggest problems, 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, which makes so much sense during those high-school years, that ultimately comes back to betray the community and its young people. In a postindustrial 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.

What can be done to plug the brain drain?

Though the problem is daunting, we believe that it is not intractable, but that any set of solutions must combine changes at micro and macro levels.

Small towns need to equalize their investments across different groups of young people. While it would be impractical, and downright wrong, to abort students' ambitions, there must be a radical rethinking of the goals of high-school education. The single-minded focus on pushing the most motivated students into four-year colleges must be balanced by efforts to match young people not headed for bachelor's degrees with training, vocational, and assorted associate-degree programs. Those programs fill the needs of a postindustrial economy but acknowledge that not every student wants to, or will, pursue a more traditional college path.

Also, school officials, parents, educators, and students must resist the temptation to think the noncollege bound will just get a job if a degree is not in the cards. Gone are the days of plentiful, well-paying blue-collar factory jobs that provided a 19-year-old with a living wage. Thinking that working the line at John Deere or Winnebago will vault you into the middle class makes about as much sense as buying eight-track tapes in the iPod age. All the planning and investments have been geared to collegebound students, while the reality is that students not earning a college degree need as much, if not more, intensive preparation for today's labor market.

The next step is to build better links between high-school and postsecondary education, and map existing opportunities onto regional economic goals. Most of the job growth within Iowa is expected to come from computer, biotech, wind energy, and health care. Matching high-school students not headed for university with vocational or community-college programs, nurturing their interests while in high school through internships and training, will prepare them for the new economic growth areas. Such partnerships require close collaborations among business and civic leaders, elected officials, and secondary and community-college administrators who are accustomed to working in their own bureaucracies. Moreover, the growing distance-learning technology should not cater only to older, returning students. If students are interested in wind technology or nursing, rather than making them take social studies senior year, how about connecting them with a distance-learning class at Iowa Lakes Community College in Introduction to Computers?

Third, small towns should seek to embrace immigration whenever possible. The phenomenon of Hispanic boomtowns, a common occurrence in the Midwest, has the potential to transform moribund local economies. Such transformations will be possible only if there is careful planning to ensure that immigrants are integrated into the community in such as way as to increase contact between natives and immigrants and with attendant labor-law reform that curbs abuses and ensures sufficient wages and benefits for workers in agribusiness and manufacturing. Ph.D.'s from India or China and less-skilled immigrants from Mexico or Central America should all be recruited and supported in an effort to make the heartland an immigrant enterprise zone. The region is in critical need of professional-class workers, and bringing in Hispanic workers for the food industry will not be enough to rejuvenate the region.

Fourth, areas that are losing population can help remain vibrant by enticing much-needed high fliers to come back home. There are free land programs in Kansas, Minnesota, and North Dakota, a statewide campaign in Iowa to bring back professionals, and student-loan-forgiveness programs in Maine and West Virginia for college graduates willing to commit to stay in the state. While the jury is out on whether any of those programs work, we believe that towns can help themselves by identifying future professionals prospectively and offering them tuition relief for graduate school that is contingent on a 10-year commitment to practice in the area. Many rural areas and towns are medically underserved and this is one way to tackle that basic problem.

At a more macro level, there is much that can be done, and ironically, the current economic crisis provides perhaps an unrivaled opportunity to do it. First, the economic stimulus provides much-needed investment that can help kick-start efforts to rebuild regional economies, but it must be accompanied by changes that will provide a more fundamental makeover. Specifically, there is ample scope for developing so-called green-economy initiatives in wind and solar power. Already, for instance, the shuttered Maytag plant in Newton, Iowa, has been refitted to produce wind turbines. Workers will need to be retrained to staff these nascent industries, and community colleges can fulfill that role.

Alongside the green economy, we should rethink how we produce food in America. Michael Pollan has argued persuasively that now is the time to provide incentives for polycultural farming that will diversify the food produced in the Corn Belt, reduce the use of artificial fertilizers, and increase the availability of organic and locally grown meat and produce. Though it is a daunting prospect to try to loosen the agribusiness stranglehold, reinventing the food industry offers a chance to bring people back onto the land. Alongside those efforts should be reforms allowing agricultural workers to organize and curbing the all too prevalent labor abuses that contribute to the long-term fragility of rural economies. To that end, national immigration policy should also be reformed away from the costly and often counterproductive interdiction efforts toward ones that offer longtime undocumented workers a pathway to citizenship and encourage a more complete participation of immigrants in their home communities.

A third area for national action is in the reshaping of postsecondary education to better meet the challenges of globalization and the postindustrial economy. Based on the experiences of the stayers and many of the returners we spoke with, we see a need to provide training in the fields and specialties most sought after, and community colleges will be key in that regard. Already, President Obama has recognized the crucial role community colleges can play when in July he introduced the American Graduation Initiative, which will commit over $12-billion in funding to provide scholarships for students, modernize colleges, and build links with other schools and businesses.

Ultimately, with a plan and a vision the undoing of Middle America is not preordained. The rural crisis has been ignored for far too long, but, we believe, it isn't too late to start paying attention. The residents of rural America must embrace the fact that to survive, the world they knew and cherished must change. And, on a national level, rural development must be more closely linked to national economic growth priorities, and policies must be created to help these communities prepare for a future that is already here.

Husband-and-wife sociologists Patrick J. Carr (Rutgers University at New Brunswick) and Maria J. Kefalas (Saint Joseph's University, Philadelphia) are associate members of the MacArthur Foundation's Network on Transitions to Adulthood and authors of Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America, published next month by Beacon Press.


1. ramesh1 - September 21, 2009 at 07:49 am

This is happening all over world.Iam from India here most villages are barren, most intelligent young people are migrating in big cities, hoping they get good job there. Our most intelligent dreaming to migrate to rich countries most try to migrate even unlawfully.
This is real tragedy of modern technology.Another
tragedy is all governement completely ignoring development of village economy.

2. eahardinnc - September 21, 2009 at 08:12 am

Thank you for devoting your professional and personal lives to the study of the hollowing out of America. At mid-life, I have spent far more of my adulthood in urban settings. However, periods of time in small-town North Carolina and Wyoming and involvement in a family organic farm in exurban NC have opened my eyes to the concerns identified in this article. I look forward to your book and am hopeful that some of the energy of the larger sustainability and slow-food movements can be engaged in what needs to be a long-term reform. It will take people risking their "lives," so to speak, to make change.

3. pkdavidson - September 21, 2009 at 08:39 am

Thanks for the article. It would be interesting to see details of how the credit crisis has played, and is playing a role in this. Perhaps some form of debt relief, in addition to the student loan fogiveness you mention, would draw people to these areas? I've heard the credit card trap referred to as "the new indentured servitude". Rather than slog on for years in denial about family finances some of our "domestic slaves" may well be interested in relocation. The open space and fresh air would do us good.

4. greentara - September 21, 2009 at 10:01 am

This is an excellent article but the authors fall into the trap of stereotyping certain groups of people.The authors assume that Ph.Ds come from India and China whereas Latin America can ( according to the authors) presumably only provide low skilled labor apt for the "field work." Mexico certainly has its share of Ph.Ds and agronomists that could also be recruited.

5. northernsand - September 21, 2009 at 10:38 am

What an insightful essay. I especially voice my support for point number one. I worked as an educator in a small town for three years (population 1,000) and was lucky enough to have a principal who believed in ALL students potential and did his best to equalize the school's offerings toward his students.

Let's talk about something else, not mentioned in the article. I left that town not because I didn't love the people nor the school. I left because as a 20-something I was bored. There were few options for entertainment, socialization, or friendship for an "outsider" and being a teacher didn't lend any benefit to my cause. I grew tired of 40-75 mile commutes in the snow just to shop at a mall, or enjoy an evening out. I don't know how small towns can overcome that problem without investing in commerce, culture, and development.

I was lucky in that the politics of my town were liberal, but I've spoken to others who face sharply conservative and intolerant views in their towns. If one is gay, feminist, a person of color, or enjoys healthy political discourse, the truth is that person may not find a friendly welcome in a large number of rural locales. This makes for another roadblock for the resurgence of small rural communities.

I look forward to reading the book.

6. hopeful_buffalo - September 21, 2009 at 10:46 am

The increase of corporate farming/agri-business has driven out the successful farm family scenario. There are many young people that would have wanted to stay and farm with their family but cannot successfully do so. We do not need to give/sell our land away to immigrants. Make agriculture a possibility for the mid-western youth and it will happen again. If the farms are healthy the towns will be healthy. Their financial success will support the businesses in the small towns. The small towns are being destroyed by corporate greed.

7. brad_johnson - September 21, 2009 at 10:48 am

Well articulated! I find the irony so obvious when I sit with community leaders who bemoan the brain drain, then talk with great pride of their efforts ("sacrifices") to send their own children off to fancy private colleges in the big city. This is not going to be easy to change, given the decades-long emphasis on high-status colleges. But change it MUST! Thanks.

8. irishgmc - September 21, 2009 at 10:56 am

Very insightful article and reflects much of what I observe in rural Texas. Many of your suggestions for change are right on. Let me also suggest that rural entrepreneurship provides many of the things needed to transform rural communities into vibrant, desirable, economically strong places to live. Of course, entrepreneurship and other strategies will not work if communities are paying close attention to community development as one of their highest priorities. Youth and adult entrepreneurship programs offer potential to capture the creativity and innovation that resides in many of the youth you discuss in the article. If local educators and economic developers will create expectations and possibilities and then support them through education and technical assistance, great things can happen in terms of job and wealth creation. One advantage of this strategy is that it is not costly to implement and is culture and life changing for a community.

There are many examples and resources available that illustrate success in many states. The RUPRI Center for Rural Entrepreneurship (http://www.ruraleship.org/) is one starting place. In Texas, we have the Texas Center for Rural Entrepreneurship (http://www.tcre.org) and there is free curriculum at http://campus.extension.org.

Thanks for your insight and research...it will be shared with many of my community college consortium colleagues.

9. rlpeterson - September 21, 2009 at 11:05 am

In the 80s, I was one of those kids who left a small town (population 1400) to go to school, and I never came back. Like many of my peers, I left "in search of good jobs, culture, diversity, and tolerance."

Good jobs are only one part of the picture. All the economic development and educational reform in the world will accomplish nothing if a community simply isn't a place where people with education, skills, and money want to live.

Culture, diversity, and tolerance are important, and if a community fades away because it can't meet those needs, why is that a tragedy?

10. jjhelversmith1973 - September 21, 2009 at 11:16 am

Much food for thought here; thank you. I never comment on things like this, but I am driven to it this morning by this article.

As someone who fled small-town America as soon as she was able, I cannot stress enough that I would never, never voluntarily return to a place like where I came from. Even if I live another fifty years, I would not expect to see that area undergo the kind of cultural change it would require for it to become a place where I could stand to wake up in the morning. I need to live in a place where people are tolerant, progressive-minded, and supportive, where culture is held in high regard. The place where I lived for the first seventeen years of my life is populated by people who are bigoted, reactionary, suspicious of anything new, and unwilling to do even the simplest things to make their lot in life any better.

I was expected to educate myself, obtain higher education, and do the best I could for myself. The best happened to be getting out. I am heartily sorry for friends who have remained there and who now wonder what happened to their lives, but who resist the thought of leaving.

I think the people who stay in towns like that deserve what they get. Jimmy Stewart is not going to ride in at the last minute and remind everyone of how great things are. Even the people who resist change are usually unhappy with the way things are, so their recalcitrance is doubly maddening. No amount of free land or student-loan forgiveness is going to replenish dying communities with the kind of high-quality educated folk these towns seem to think they'll hook. What they'll get are people who'll take their money and complain every day about living there.

11. outtafocus - September 21, 2009 at 11:18 am

I have a different take than the authors. I live & work in Appalachia, where a very clannish culture discourages children from leaving home. Their idea for the very few who go away to college is the state university one hour from here. Most of those graduates do return to a society that will never change. The quality of life here is among the worst in the nation, there is no cultural diversity, and the educational attainment is deplorable. The local community colleges do a nice job, however viable industries, aside from coal are non-existant. Companies can't find an educated work-force, and anyone who can pass the urine tox screen. IfI were an "achiever" here, I would get out as fast as I could and never look back.

12. auto23 - September 21, 2009 at 11:33 am

I'm one of your "achievers" who fled Hillbillyville, Texas, for New England prep school, followed by elite college. (The newstands at DFW offered a better selection of books than any store in my hometown.) Not until second-year at top business school did I again pay any attention to small-town achievers like myself. Students who'd been undergrads at Big 10 schools were being heavily recruited by firms like John Deere and Caterpillar. The ones who were in any way non-normative were appalled at the prospect of living in small-town Illinois. (And by non-normative, I mean nothing more than a taste for Pad Thai.) One gay friend told me he'd die living in Moline (He took a job in Chicago.) Ditto the students who were still unmarried -- "I don't want to go back to dating the girls I knew in high school." A married friend who met his wife at the University of Wisconsin told me his wife was not about to live in a town where all the restaurants used plastic knives and forks (and she was nobody's idea of worldly and sophisticated).

For business reasons, I still pay attention to rural America. Every few years, I drive Atlantic to Pacific on back roads, trying to avoid spending money at national chain business. I'm shocked how hollowed-out small towns are becoming, how few people under 40 you find, how poor and isolated everything feels.

Rural America has one high card -- their public universities and the world-class research in agricultural/life sciences they produce. These schools have historically operated with a broad understanding of the public interest not shared by, say, Harvard. (They work closely with county extension agents to spread word of ways to improve agriculural yields.) If rural America is to have a chance, their universites and community colleges will again have to step up.

We'll see. I'm not optimistic. The poverty, the aging population, the lousy infrastructure (in its many dimensions) may make it too late for any broad-based revival.

13. hopeful_buffalo - September 21, 2009 at 11:57 am

You must be the change you want to see in the world. Those that are leaving the small towns need to consider before leaving, that they may be what is causing the stagnation in their towns. It is easier to join what is already changed than be the change. This is a problem in all over the world.

14. awebb09 - September 21, 2009 at 12:04 pm

The article is a reminder to the scholars and researchers of the history about the cycle of life. Over one hundred years ago approx. ninety-eight per cent of the people on earth lived on farms and 2 per cent lived in cities. Today (2009)approx. ninety-eight per cent of the people are living in cities or urban areas and 2 per cent are living on the farms. In America the great migration from the south to the urban north and the California "Dreaming," in the 30s and 40s lead to a discontinuity (a shift in the U.S. population from ruralareas to cities). The real issue that we as American must deal with is "the teaching profession." If all teachers could become employed by the Department of Education ( and have rank structure similar to the military ( officers: O-1 to O10; Teachers: T-1 to T-10) and remove the state and federal politics and legal (unjustice) all areas of America could have qualified teacher in all states (The Educational System in America would be a GOLD STANDARD (Globally Competitive). Second, all of us do not need to go to college and the university. A disservice to our communities and children. Where are the Henry Fords, Madame C. J. Walkers, Bill Gates, etc. today? The article is okay, but "too much thought can prevent action" (Don Juan). We are going to do is nothing; we can do is nothing too; but do, do is what all Americans need to do to compete in the global economy (become farmers, mechanics, innovators, honest business humankinds, and other honest professions.(save and invest).."Microwave Wealth does not exist.")

15. charlesr - September 21, 2009 at 12:35 pm

One hundred years ago many of these towns were productive and economically viable. Today many are not. It is futile and a waste of resources to try to perpetuate a dated, romantic notion. Let them die a natural death.

16. zeugitai - September 21, 2009 at 12:51 pm

First let me say that I appreciated the insightful comments as much as or more than the article. Because of them, my comments will be largely redundant.

I was raised in Cleveland, Ohio, a city in the grip of corrupt "civic and business leaders" for at least the better part of my life. I left and sought a more wholesome life in rural America. I have traveled the back roads, lived in small towns, and wish to add to the discussion two of the views and observations that have come from this.

Although it is possible to plant orchards and gardens and live the healthy life of tranquility that I originally sought, that requires that you be independently wealthy, and I am not. It is not possible to alter -- or even to survive -- two other factors: 1) the towns are generally ruled by a cabal of relatively wealthy and certainly powerful "civic and business leaders"; and 2) the social fabric of the towns is generally exclusive, inflexible, refractory. These factors have discouraged me and I am in the process of abandoning rural America and returning to the cities where power is more distributed, tolerance is the rule rather than the exception, and economic opportunity still exists.

In the small town in Iowa where I now live, opportunities to earn an income are scarce and those that occur are inadequate. The local oligarchy seems to have enticed the two employers here by guaranteeing very low wages, no unions, and tax breaks that are made up for by milking the shrinking and underpaid local population in county and local taxes. The local population is demographically uniform: all white. Generalizing, they are Christian hypocrites, intolerant of diversity, unwelcoming and unaccepting of change in any form, self-righteous, and inclined to crude and often violent behavior. While applying to work at the local paper, I was asked by the publisher/owner -- a corpulent petty tyrant with guns hanging on three of four office walls -- whether or not I loved Sarah Palin as much as he did and regretted that she was not currently the President of the United States instead of this "God damned Obama."

In the office of another potential employer I was called a "sour apple" and rejected for employment because I had mentioned that I had given up smoking and drinking.

Nothing will save rural America from rural Americans. The one is the product of the other. To change Americans, the social and educational systems that produce them must first be changed radically, and that cannot and will not happen. These are sclerotic institutions.

As beautiful as rural North America is, it is held tightly by those "civic and business leaders" and those ignorant and refractory conservatives who are out there. As one person told me when I arrived here two years ago: "Before you say or do anything, remember: they were here first."

Well, shut my mouth!

17. hopeful_buffalo - September 21, 2009 at 12:55 pm

There will always be towns and villages that will not survive because they refuse to change. Change does not necessarily mean losing values and losing the ability to maintan local economies. It means incorporating current technology and knowledge into the local economies without losing important skills that can balance our reliance on big industry and the global economy. It means making those industries that destroy small businesses and economies to pull another 1%, 2%, 3% profit be accountable. It means that large industries that batter away at small vendors for an annual increase in cost savings until the vendors close their doors should be held accountable for their greed.

18. outtafocus - September 21, 2009 at 01:23 pm

Whenever in doubt, follow Darwin's theories. His studies hold true across all levels of biolgy, from marine invertebrates to meth-heads. Natural selection encourages spreading of DNA around a population; interbreeding (societally, culturally, and sexually) leads to natural demise. I agree with a prior poster, let nature take its course.

19. francishamit - September 21, 2009 at 01:32 pm

In 1931, my father left Lawrence, Kansas at the age of 18 and went East, where he eventually became a doctor and an army officer. He saw no opportunities in Lawrence and felt discriminated against precisely because he was the bright one in his class. I live in a rurla area where not only people do not read, but are proud of that fact. Rural culture has not changed in over a century and is not likely to.
The smart kids leave because they feel trapped.

20. hopeful_buffalo - September 21, 2009 at 01:34 pm

Sorry, but there is "no" interbreeding in the small towns I have been in. Cajan and Appalacian towns are not like midwestern towns. Small town USA in the Midwest, South and North often share school systems and vendors. They are not isolated in that manner.

21. superdude - September 21, 2009 at 02:31 pm

The premise is that these small towns need to be saved or revitalized. Why, exactly, is that the case?

22. artstar - September 21, 2009 at 02:53 pm

I am 6th generation Iowan. There is a town in Iowa named after my maternal Great grandfather and a park named after my maternal grandmother's family. I am abd for a Ph.D. and Ed.D. Do I live in Iowa-no. There is nothing there for me. I am a woman and my adjunct job when it was searched went to a guy from Poland and my adjunct job in Illinois went to a guy from Belgium. Please read between the lines.

23. artstar - September 21, 2009 at 02:53 pm

I am 6th generation Iowan. There is a town in Iowa named after my maternal Great grandfather and a park named after my maternal grandmother's family. I am abd for a Ph.D. and Ed.D. Do I live in Iowa-no. There is nothing there for me. I am a woman and my adjunct job when it was searched went to a guy from Poland and my adjunct job in Illinois went to a guy from Belgium. Please read between the lines.

24. 11893310 - September 21, 2009 at 02:54 pm

I am surprised, but perhaps shouldn't be that neither the authors of the essay nor any commentator has mentioned Wendell Berry in this context. For more than forty years, Berry has observed and advised and written upon the sources of the problems with US rural degeneration and has proposed solutions that get to the core of personal, cultural and "landscape" despoilation that encompasses much more than just the US rural environment. The industrialization of agriculture and education, our yielding to "globalism," which benefits corporations but not people, incompetence at the national governmental level, and frequently at the local and state level, are some of the matters he addresses (and some which the authors of the essay do also). But if we can't fix the rural problem at the moral, social, and cultural level, with the reordering of American values and priorites, then the rest will simply be building on an flawed foundation that will only compound the problem over time. This not a conservative vs. liberal issue. It's a deeply human and spiritual one.

And for me, as a resident and college teacher living in (very) rural Tennessee, the problem is also very personal.

25. artstar - September 21, 2009 at 03:02 pm

P.S. My grandfather knew Meredith Wilson since he was a small child.

26. dthornton9 - September 21, 2009 at 03:30 pm

As a bright, small town girl who, yes, left the country for an education, including MBA from a top 10 school, and early working career in the big city - I came back, brought my family, and am thrilled. I find the comments here arrogant, elitist, and downright rude. One of the reasons I came back is because I want my children to be brought up on "traditional" values. I don't want them taught that being homosexual is a perfectly appropriate choice for a 14 year old, that owning a gun is awful, and the USA is bad and always wrong. In short, I don't want those wonderful cultural ideas being espoused in these comments. I want them taught that you should be married, to an opposite gender person, do your best to stay that way, go to church every Sunday, work hard, take care of your famiy, and not expect the government to do so.
Yes, some small towns are dissappearing, and we are losing too many of our best and brightest-and yes, we need to do something about it. Our area is working to do so. With some successes, and some failures. But though there are problems-it is a better place now than 30 years ago. And I'm optimistic that it will continue to improve in the next 30 years.

27. outtafocus - September 21, 2009 at 03:58 pm

Very enlightening. I'll be sure to tell my gay friends who live here in Appalachia (and there are more than just a few), that they actually had a choice growing up. I'm pretty sure that they would have chosen to be heterosexual just to avoid the misery of living around the bubbas & other rednecks who see things the way you do.

Congratulations for reminding all of us that an education does not ensure intelligence & common sense.

28. sheridancollege - September 21, 2009 at 03:59 pm

Wonderful article! The sad part is that the American Graduation Initiative for community colleges won't help much because rural states will not see much of the funding where the distribution formula is population-based. And while community colleges are indeed a large part of the answer to rural brain drain or urban under-employment, many community colleges unwittingly contribute to the brain drain by being overly focused on the transfer mission which of course is a critical aspect of the community college mission. But a balanced focus on local jobs is also critical to the mission of community colleges. Further, and just as important, public policy makers/public funders for community colleges must become acutely aware of supporting community colleges in educating for "local" 21st Century jobs which almost always require expensive curricula. Has anybody priced a single wind turbine lately or a building big enough to house its maintenance?

29. mhick255 - September 21, 2009 at 04:22 pm

"Many Americans think about flyover country or Red America only during the culture war's skirmishes or campaign season."

Then again, many Americans live there. :)

30. joesmith10 - September 21, 2009 at 04:23 pm

I am a conservative (reactionary to some of you fellows) who moved back to a no stop sign town in Texas. We have our own library at the house, Internet, and the outdoors for entertainment. If we want more, we drive into the city. I could care less about "diversity" and "tolerance." The old-timers are fine; if they want to talk about the wildlife they have seen the past week instead of homosexual rights or the newest night club, that's ok with me. Different people have their own set of topics they are interested in. The problem is that many of the teenagers and people in their 20's have taken up a ghetto culture, with all its pathologies. I wish more of them would leave. We home-school for this reason. Drugs and a thug culture have cropped up in our area to the point that the record turnout last election was because of the sherriff's race instead of the national races. Might as well depopulate the area if that is all they have to offer. You want to talk about intolerance, that age group has it in spades.

31. hhilborn - September 21, 2009 at 04:53 pm

So Carr and Kefalas think we can preserve American small towns with illegal aliens. If you think the best and brightest are bailing out now, see what happens when their town is transformed into a semblance of a Third World country. Look at the recent California demographics; who's leaving, who's staying.

32. marklarson - September 21, 2009 at 05:14 pm

My 3 siblings and I are just one example of how those of us who left rural mid-America make up South Dakota's finest "export crop"! Actually, since we many of us in the midwest were offspring of immigrant grandparents or great-grandparents, I always thought emigrating out of the midwest was just a natural way of continuing that ebb and flow. Of course, I also always thought my leaving was just a natural way of correcting a map-reading mistake by those same ancestors!

33. jmlanoue - September 21, 2009 at 05:29 pm

Interesting article and look forward to the book. Appreciate the observation from another reader about the same rural to urban movement in India. I was an achiever also, and I left a small town in Michigan literally the morning after high school graduation - early. In fact, I developed great math skills during my childhood, calculating the days until I could leave, how far I could or would go, how long it would take. We had many of the things noted here as a remedy - vocational programs in school, efforts at culture however I was bored to screaming by my fellow citizens, whose interests were confined to hunting, football, drinking to excess, and fishing and I can't imagine any circumstances that would make me go back there. In spite of my experience, I do agree with the authors that these areas should be saved. Rural communities could offer repair centers, call centers, retirement communities, distribution centers and sustainable agriculture as suggested here. All of these things located in rural areas lower end costs for consumers as well as provide vocational options for the non college bound. Also many people genuinely prefer a smaller community or the choice to have a more simple lifestyle at a lower cost. This prompts me to add another point - what about transportation? Every small town I've been to or through requires a long drive, sometimes on lousy roads. If there were nice trains or even buses, then people and culture would be likely be more mobile, even in light of the points made here about the Town Management and their control. Transportion would surely provide at least as much return on the investment as giving away land - possibly more.

34. please - September 21, 2009 at 06:12 pm


She did say she earned an MBA from a top 10 school. Given the record of many similar graduates in directly or indirectly causing the current global financial situation, none of us should feel surprised that her education "does not ensure intelligence & common sense". Regarding her comments about the apparent rudeness of individuals who left small towns for the very reason she embraces them, Bill Maher said it best: Let's not get so tolerant that we tolerate intolerance.

35. hhilborn - September 21, 2009 at 06:29 pm

Perhaps it is time for moderators of public comments to consider deleting those which make personal remarks about other commentors.

36. erikjensen - September 21, 2009 at 06:45 pm

I honestly don't understand the impulse of many educated liberals to flock to places like Austin, Portland, etc. When asked, they talk about either the plethora of cultural activities or being surrounded by like-minded individuals. But most of the time, they don't actually attend operas, go to museums, or do anything they couldn't do for fun in a small town. And surrounding oneself with like-minded individuals seems like the antithesis of being open-minded. It's about snobbery and mental laziness.

I also don't understand one of the author's points. We need to support rural areas because they provide cannon-fodder and electoral votes? Seriously?

37. outtafocus - September 21, 2009 at 06:48 pm

Perhaps the moderators could delete those whose opinion you disagree with. That would make for interesting diatribe.

38. hhilborn - September 21, 2009 at 07:12 pm

I rest my case.

39. podritske - September 21, 2009 at 07:28 pm

Oh my, the social planners continue to try and weave their magic.

Technological advances have made possible the greater production efficiency of the main business of rural areas, i.e. agribusiness. So, dying little communities that cannot find other economic alternatives for the local populations must wither and dissappear, while the "brains" seek other alternatives.

Those who hang around, whining about the lack of opportunity are not the type of individual anybody wants to deal with: lacking initiative for anything but petty crime or drug-dealing in many cases. Communities don't exist to support hangers on. They exist because they are created by individuals seeking real opportunities.

Why is it that "change" is unacceptable when it does not match the ideals of social engineers? If just for once, society's leaders would insist on personal responsibility instead of "social" responsibility, then communities would blossom wherever such responsible individuals eventually settled to meet each other's needs. Voluntary association and trade: it is a beautiful thing.

40. paultheexpoet - September 21, 2009 at 07:49 pm

I grew up in Des Moines, the largest city in Iowa, and despite having at most 500,000 people in the greater area, it takes up more space than San Francisco. Unfortunately, their bus system is a joke, so even the poorest people have to shell out for a car.

What was Des Moines' idea of development? Another shopping mall, and now all of them are struggling because the customers are too spread out.

When I moved to Portland, OR, I was delightfully shocked. I could take the bus all over town, Movie Madness had more foreign films than 10 Blockbusters combined, the arts scene was alive and well . . . almost all the artists I knew had moved from the Midwest, and plenty of the homosexuals, too, because the Midwest didn't want us.

And why on Earth should modern America have townships of 500 or less? Or a thousand or less? Could anything really make those economically viable?

Any struggling town in the Red States that shunned many of their best and brightest for being different and invited in Walmart is getting what it asked for, and posters on this site who defend the Redness of their Red States only prove my point. They don't want us.

41. thenegrotimoteo - September 21, 2009 at 08:30 pm

This is why rural Americans suspect their coastal compatriots of hostility toward their interests. The authors declare themselves defenders of small-towns, but their sympathies turn out to lie not with the townsfolk but with urban economic and political well-being. Rural decline apparently matters inasmuch as it "has repercussions far beyond the boundaries of the small towns it affects" [!]": because their votes may cancel out "ours," and on account of some sort of _nostalgie de la boue_ wet dream about "sustainable agriculture"and a "green economy" (whatever that is). Ah yes, and they grow our food.

One wishes for a more charitable interpretation, but then the authors proclaim that "small towns should seek to embrace immigration whenever possible." The rest of the paragraph confirms that this is not a typographical error! So for our bold cultural anthropologists venturing into Iowa, the solution to the problems of small-town Americans is---to replace them with foreigners. Of course, this is in the long term; in the short term their scheme promises: an

42. thenegrotimoteo - September 21, 2009 at 08:33 pm

...increase in crime, a decline in civility, and the depression of wages.

43. outtafocus - September 21, 2009 at 09:16 pm

hhilborn sates: "I rest my case"

Sarcasm misunderstood is sarcasm perfected.

I truly mourn for the achievers who don't make it out.

44. mmacsteves - September 21, 2009 at 09:35 pm

I am a born and bred city girl, now a community college teacher living and working in a small, rural North Dakota town.

I absolutely think small communities are worth saving! If America's rural heritage is to survive into the next century, we need to promote and provide training in Entrepreneurship for those who have the desire and expertise to meet the myriad needs of rural residents, as well as those who wish to start ventures close to "home." Studies show a majority of kids don't want to leave their home areas permanently, but feel they don't have much choice. The comfort of home, family and the familiar is a powerful draw. The retirement-age population of many small towns provides opportunities for younger families to "make their own jobs" through main street and lifestyle business ownership. Improvements in technology have removed many barriers for businesses whose customers are outside the immediate area. Our college offers online AAS and Certificate programs in Entrepreneurship so rural residents can access the information they need to have a successful business.

The importance of introducing entrepreneurship as a viable career option to elementary and secondary students cannot be overlooked. The notion of entrepreneurial thinking must be encouraged and rewarded, if businesses are to take root and grow. Programs such as Hometown Competitiveness, among others, can support the development of entrepreneurial activities among all ages in small communities. They can provide technical assistance with improving infrastructure and locating funding sources to support such efforts.

Small businesses account for the majority of new inventions, new innovations and job growth. When schools, higher ed and community work together to support existing and new rural businesses the future for many small towns looks bright.

45. pessinton - September 22, 2009 at 04:24 am

The authors carefully avoided the political ramifications of their study. This is how I read it: rural counties are becoming, on balance, progressively stupider. But given the outsized influence that rural areas have both in the electoral college and the Senate, this is detrimental to the proper functioning of our political system. Therefore the solution is to improve the quality of the rural population.

To put in my own 2 cents--I have many distant relatives who still live in rural areas and very small towns (pop. under 3000)--it's obvious that unless we SIGNIFICANTLY increase the amount of money we spend on education then a large number of Americans will simply be unprepared for life in the 21st century. Second, without more redistributive economic policies, the poor will get poorer, and the rural poor will eventually disappear altogether. No need to travel all over the US to figure that one out...

46. sldean - September 22, 2009 at 09:32 am

The authors miss one vital aspect of rural and smalltown culture that contributes to brain drain, although many of the commentors allude to it. That is that as much as the educational system may in some schools spend most of their resources on nurturing the very brightest, the peers of these same students spend much of their time alienating them, picking on them, ostracizing them, and ultimately driving them away. I left the local school system in middleschool for a private prep school, but the 9 years (including kindergarden) of small town education, particularly in the middleschool years, was enough. When I think of small towns, what I remember is fear, hurt, shame, anger, confusion as to why this was being done to me, and horrible, all-encompassing loneliness. When I think of the city, I think of college and for the first time being among people who read books like I did, who understood my jokes and my interests; who greeted me like long lost family who had finally found their way home.

Is it any wonder that there's such bitterness and scorn in many of the comments, when their authors likely experienced what I did for even longer than I did? Is it surprising that we think of our old classmates who stayed as our ex-jailers and torturers? Who realistically remembers their tormenters with anything but hatred and contempt? I'm successfully pursuing a doctorate, I graduated phi beta kappa, I'm married, and I have a wide circle of friends in my new city home, but even so the mention of small town life is enough to stir an echo of the misery and isolation experienced by the small girl I once was.

While I understand that the authors believe these rural areas must be saved, and while the increase in poverty and desperation saddens me, my first thought now that my husband and I are starting to think about children is NO. No way is my child going through the living hell that I did. Not my kid. Look at what I went through just because my mom listened to classical music and jazz instead of light rock and because I was the only kid in my school who liked the Lord of the Rings more than I liked the Baby Sitters Club? And my kids would be eurasian, so they're starting out different, and what if one of them is gay? I don't care what opportunities or how much money you offer, I will not raise my kids in a place like I grew up. I will not see what was done to me done to my child. Never, never. And unless you can either prove to me that the culture has changed drastically, or you're talking about coaxing groups of at least 10 to 20 urban families at a time out to these small towns to provide your transplants with their own sense of family and belonging, my opinion will not change.

47. lector - September 22, 2009 at 10:49 am

"---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."

They vote because they are ignorant and gullible enough to believe the system still works. They rush off to join the military for much the same reasons. That, and they just love the idea of killing dark skinned people, if not killing in general.

48. john_r - September 22, 2009 at 11:50 am

This article sounds a lot like the old joke that starts:" we are from the government and are here to help". I grew up on a ranch in the region covered in this article. I graduated from college and returned to the ranch to work and live. I am currently sending my daughters through the education system here, so I believe I am well qualified to comment.
First I will say that there are lots of problems in rural America and I have stated that we are the new Appalachia. Having agreed with the authors to this point The following points are where I digress from their observations and, or conclusions.
At the height of hysteria over the current finical crises the rural banks of America were rock solid. I borrowed several thousand dollars on a phone call to my bank to by some breeding stock. At a time when the headlines were decrying the lack of available funds. We are promised lots of new regulation to fix our problems, when it seems as if we are doing pretty well out here.
The authors have lots to say about low wages but nothing to say about the low cost of living. Simply put it is a lot cheaper to live out here.
The family farms that remain (which are a huge margin) are most endangered by death taxes and government mandates not cooperate bad guys.
As for the declining number of farmers: the number has been static at 2% for at least 35 of my 47 years.
In regard to smaller farms selling locally it should be noted that The Dust Bowl was a direct result of applying eastern high rainfall area thinking to an arid area that is subject to sever droughts about every thirty years. In more arid areas it requires more land to achieve an economy of scale.
In conclusion I would like to see a more balanced account of the population of these areas. I would like to see some one from outside look objectively at our strengths and make neutral judgements as opposed to bringing a preformed partisan set of ideas and attempting to make rural America fit their preconceived notion.

49. jrlarsonus - September 22, 2009 at 01:14 pm

I liked your article and agree with a lot of the comments posted her. One thing I would add as another cause of the desertification of rural life is the lack of certain types of food. I grew up in a rural small town in Illinois (pop. 1,400), a farm town surrounded by other farm towns with the nearest "big city" (pop. 100,000 -- two towns of around 50,000 that grew together) over half an hour away. As a vegetarian, it would be dreadful trying to live in any of the small towns in my area. Even in the "big city" the food is predominately Midwest meat-and-potatoes with your typical Chili's and Olive Gardens thrown in. It's difficult to find staples like tofu and almond milk in small towns, or "exotics" like curry powder and tahini, and the prices are much higher. The restaurants tend toward pizza and burgers or tavern food (usually pizza and burgers). I can certainly see why people from India or China would be hesitant to live in rural America (leaving off other issues) due to diet.

50. jude42 - September 22, 2009 at 01:27 pm

Iowa has become a private vacation spot for hunters and golfers. Built for people who do not spend any money there(the owners of the courses and hunt clubs live elsewhere) and do not care about the meth induced fog of one single resident. The meth use is no surprise in poverty as history proves. The way of life in Iowa has been a spiral downward since the Jimmy Carter administration. Rotting crop stored under tarps during the embargo was certainly the fuse that started the fire of poverty among farmers. Car sales and farm equipement as well as general goods made it impossible for those industries to profit as well and they soon followed the manufacturing industry out. The exodus of the young followed.There is no opportunity where there is total failure of any security. There is no realistic way to farm unless you have a second income and then you really have no life. Even if you are born into it you are now saddled with dept that ballooned during the Carter years and trickled down to today with unimaginable interest due leaving opportunity for the take over of farm land by those with no intention of farming it. With no farm industry the goods required to do so are not needed either.
The truth is unless we discover a quick way to give back pride to those who lost it and lucidity to those trapped in escape we have little chance of stopping the trend. Eventually the state will have no resident under the age of 30 unless they are caddy's or hold the amunition.And certainly no farm land the one thing that made the state a name.

51. davi2665 - September 22, 2009 at 03:30 pm

Wow! The social elitists and cultural snobs bemoan the demise of rural America while supporting and expousing the very policies and attitudes that contribute to it. I have lived in both settings. The urban culture, with its corrupt governments, staggering crime, anonymous housing arrangements where most people do not even know who their neighbors are, the endless polution and traffic, the glorifying of "diversity" and "cultural opportunities" that most urban residents never take advantage of- these are not my idea of a wonderful living environment. And this does not take into account the staggering taxes, the indebtedness for urban workers' pensions, and all the other ways that the big cities rip off their residents. The small towns offer some financial and social advantages, but also have very powerful and influential "families" and community leaders. However, I have seen some of these leaders work vigorously to enrich the cultural environment of the small town- and they do not have to run the gauntlet of cadres of corrupt politicians, and political and union payoffs to achieve even minor accomplishments.

What has been left out of this entire conversation is the demise of small businesses. The small businesses can and should be the source of excellent employment opportunities for educated young people in rural America and small towns. But the absurd taxing policies, the endless disincentives for small businesses, the lack of capital for anything but large urban (political payoff) projects, and the urban/elitist orientation of the venture (vulture) money that could fund small businesses, has virtually guaranteed that the large agribusinesses, banking acquisitions, megacorporations, and other politically influential (i.e., capable of buying state and federal legislators) sources get the lion's share of so-called "stimulus" money, opportunities,and handouts. It is the social engineers who have virtually guaranteed the demise of rural and small town America. I see little hope in the current political environment for changing any of this. There is an ongoing assault on almost all aspects of support for small businesses, so the only place the talented young people have to go is to urban areas, which become even more blighted with population expansion. And the utter disrespect of the liberal elite for anyone not as erudite and enlightened as they view themselves does not bode well for a re-investment in small businesses in rural and small town areas. Parenthetically, I have found small town environments as excellent for promoting and growing small business, provided that one has the resources to bootstrap it alone. Only the corrupt giant corporations get handouts, while small business get the regulations, taxes, disincentives, and distain. It would be nice to see a more balanced representation of the strengths and opportunities for small towns and rural America than the stereotyped, arrogant, culturally snobbish bashing that this set of comments represents.

52. arolfs - September 22, 2009 at 03:39 pm

Both my husband and I grew up in small town america (MN - population 2000) and Iowa similar size town and both of us are professionals (MD and professional musician). 4/4 grandfathers were farmers. I spent my youth going to farming auctions which in retrospect I realize was when all the farms went under (60-70's). We still have the auction posters from the grandfathers losing their farms. They hang in my son's room.

We both loved small town living. Only a small percentage of my graduating class went to college but that's not because the others were not capable. Some just didn't want college. They wanted to farm or to go to vocational school and to stay in that lovely area with a lifestyle they loved.

I find academia laughable on this subject. I've read so many books that claimed the ivy league in the early and mid 20th century couldn't find enough intelligent rural people to recruit to college and now we have a "brain drain" in rural america? And I loved the earlier comment about "cannon fodder". 4/4 of my uncles served in WWII - the best and the brightest was killed. The others all became professionals and teachers.

It is achingly sad that the farming economy of rural america has been replaced by agribusiness. Rural america is made up of a mixture of people with a mixture of dreams. We should support those who wish to stay and those who wish to leave. It's good to see that academia is developing an interest in the "flyover" states. You will learn what rural america needs by asking rural americans.

53. farm_boy - September 22, 2009 at 04:55 pm

The comments are even more interesting than the article. I grew up in rural Iowa 40 years ago, but that place no longer exists. It is dead, and agrobusiness has no interests in reviving it.

One factor not mentioned: weather. In Iowa and other places in the north, it sucks. It's the southern rural areas that have more of a chance of attracting new and diverse populations.

In fact, I'd like to move to rural Arkansas right now. I'm just waiting for a chance to teach on-line that will pay a decent wage and allow me to work from my rural home.

54. mbrmark - September 22, 2009 at 06:26 pm

I think many of the answers to the decline of rural America can be found in the comments here. The rise of agribusiness has much of the blame, but also the intolerance that many young people experienced and still experience is documented in the comments here. Unless investment incentives are aimed at small towns by their states instead of big business they will die. Unless small towns themselves decide to welcome people not condemn them if they are different in anyway, then small-town rural America is doomed and many of the commentators (who came from these small towns) here will not be in anyway saddened if they become extinct, understandably. Smalltown rural America has ultimately to decide if it wishes to live or to die.

55. aufsland - September 23, 2009 at 01:02 am

Although I live in Germany and there certainly are many differences to America I feel compelled to write a few sentences in defense of the small town.

Four years ago we moved with our two kids from Berlin to northern Bavaria, to a town of about a thousand inhabitants. Yes, people tend to be more intolerant here than in the city, and yes, people are overly curious and have less respect for the other's privacy.

But they are also extremely helpful when you have to fix your porch or need help with that pile of firewood. They keep an eye on eachother's (and our) kids when they are out playing in the streets. An old person lying dead in their house for weeks before anybody notices (a common occurrence in big cities in Germany) just wouldn't happen here.

Big city tolerance is often just another word for "indifference". Here, people care.

56. timebandit - September 23, 2009 at 08:08 am

I think we can see a lot of Putnam's premise about geographical sorting according to lifestyle preferences in the article and in the comments. Many academics are culturally tolerant, if not diversity-seeking, so of course don't like some of the missing aspects of small towns. A few who commented here prefer the traditional small town lifestyle and seek it out, whether for upholding traditional values, fear of corrupt city govt (huh?), or other lifestyle considerations.

Although I love the scenic landscapes of the countryside, I am in the former group, but have nothing against the latter group as long as they don't bother me. Unfortunately, rural areas do have different cultures, and different pressures about group conformity. An area full of say, libertarians, is going to be a lot easier to visit or live in than one of evangelical Christians. I just don't find it comfortable to be around people who tell me I'm going to hell because I don't believe in Jesus as my savior, as was the case for me in high school. (I suppose I prefer city living also because I don't like people who aren't good friends to be overly involved in my personal life.) On the other hand, I went out with a very intellectual libertarian for a while and we had great debates! So I suppose the problem is that if small towns want to attract entrepreneurs who can help to revitalize these areas, they probably have to also be accepting of diversity, and not all areas are like that. I will hazard a guess that those areas which can tolerate at least some diversity and/or have scenic landscapes are going to be able to pull through and those that do not are likely to keep declining, because the young will leave and there probably just aren't enough like-minded people who can be attracted to replace those who leave.

Also, to correct a mistaken point above - the US has one of the highest rates of small business creation in the industrialized nations and one of the reasons commonly cited is the tax incentives to support this. Perhaps our govt doesn't support small farms as it should, but for other types of small businesses, there is indeed considerable support. (I say this also as a former self-employed contractor.) It is just too bad that Walmart has replaced so many of the small stores in rural areas, but telecommuting makes many other activities possible, as our aspiring online instructor above points out.

57. dpocius - September 23, 2009 at 12:23 pm

The poster farm_boy mentioned what I consider one of two key root causes for the current socioeconomic distribution of the country's population, and that is weather. The other is location, location, location.

Humans can choose to live here or there, but climate and the physical attributes of a place are what they are, and are largely immutable by humans (global warming notwithstanding). Because we naturally tend to want to be where the weather is good and the scenery is interesting, we all try to live in these places. This is especially true for the creative and professional classes, whose livelihoods are not tied to the land as is the case for agriculture, transport, and industrial workers. The law of supply and demand being what it is, this situation gives rise to areas such as Silicon Valley, where the rise in value of technology work enables highly-educated (and politically more liberal, on average) technology workers to bid up the price of land and housing, leaving less-hospitibale areas to those who can't compete economically.

I made my living in Silicon Valley as an engineer for many years before I decided to get off the big-bucks treadmill, and I took early retirement, moving to an area in the interior of Southern California where we could drastically reduce our mortgage payment on a larger property. And guess what? The climate is dry, temperatures are hot except when they are cold, and the Santa Ana winds can drive a sane man crazy. And, instead of the diverse, dynamic, tolerant population I came from, I'm living amongst a much higher percentage of narrow-minded, short-sighted, ignorant folks than I was used to in my previous life. The town I live near is a wide spot in the road, and folks here don't seem to be in a hurry to change things much. They'd rather drive twenty-five miles down the hill for the essentials of existence, not to mention a vanilla soy latte or a movie.

The correlation is inescapable, in my mind. Good climate and landscape tend to act as a separating filter for intellecually-evolved humans, with economics as the control knob.

58. davi2665 - September 23, 2009 at 12:25 pm

It may be correct that, in the past, the US has a high rate of small business creation; it also has a very high rate of failure. For those who think that tax incentives help with this, I invite them to come to NY state or many other states where the opposite is true. Small businesses can be created when the founding individuals have their own wealth. Otherwise, in the current economic environment, there is little or no capital to be found for small businesses, especially at a critical time in their development when they need capital equipment, cash flow to get products on the market, help in meeting payroll until sales become robust, etc. The capital markets are all but closed for small businesses. Venture funding is only available with terms that exceed usury, virtually guaranteeing that the founder will lose everything. Funding from banks is non-existent because the banks are hording cash and investing in their usual Las Vegas-style investment instruments. And the so-called "Recovery Act" and bale-out money is only available for the troglodyte businesses that are deemed "too big to fail." My interpretation of that is that these businesses own too many politicians to ever have meaningful regulation and oversight, in much the same manner as the trial lawyers will ALWAYS block meaningful torte reform in medicine. Which leaves small businesses in their current situation- undercapitalized, laying off employees, facing new fees and taxes, facing further disincentives to invest, and facing studied indifference from the politicians who do not view small businesses as a good resource to tap for political contributions and graft. Times have changed, and small businesses are an unfortunate victim.

59. auto23 - September 23, 2009 at 03:21 pm


You sound like a grad student who's had too many beers and is now ranting in a bar on topics you don't understand anywhere as well as you think.

Rural America receives far more from govt than it contributes. As was noted upthread, it will always have political clout out of proportion to the more densely populated East and West Coasts. Its power in Congress is a major (but not sole) stumbling block to Obama reforming healthcare.


Very accurately expressed -- I couldn't agree more. Going away to school saved my life. I would do anything to spare my children having to relive the living hell that my small town childhood was.

60. rosalea - September 24, 2009 at 06:52 am

I was once of those who left my hometown in south central Kansas to go to a university, but came back--twice. The last time I returned was in 1994. It has been nothing but a hell you cannot imagine. All I have tried to do for the past four decades is save our historic downtown, and have been met with the most incredible bullying attacks, illegal demoltions--anything and everything you can ever imagine. Our nonprofit ogranzation publishes a grassroots newspaper so I travel a lot to other small towns who are experiencing the same thing--decades of corruption implemented by a small clique in power. The citizens are intimidated and apathetic beyond reason. They have given up all hope. This control and corrutpion includes city and county leadership, law enforcement and the judicial system. Drug dealing and drug use is epidemic. The FBI and Attorney General turn a blind eye as our population base is so low--only 6,500 in the county. They have ruined out county, which is now considered one of the blackest counties in Kansas. I have a fairly high profile in the region because of enduring and standing up to the attacks, and what I hear repeatdly is that "I'd love to move back but I won't go through the hell you've gone through." To turn the tide is the most Heruclean task I've ever imagined. I stand alone. It is no longer important to try and save the historic structures they love to raze, but rather, to save the spirits of the people. Educate, educate, educate--and suffer the consquences. TRUTH is the five-letter bad word on the prairies of South Central Kansas!

61. bdr8y - September 24, 2009 at 11:53 am

While many of wounds in rural America are indeed self-inflicted, much of what we are discussing in regards to bigotry and suspicion are the products of poverty and economic decline rather than its genesis. Like all communities that feel embattled, these rural areas cling to the status-quo as a way to maintain a life that they feel is in rapid decline. It certainly doesn't excuse homophobia, racism, and other forms of bigotry, but I think there are contextual conditions that give rise to these attitudes and behaviors that we must understand and explore.
In addition, I am really taken aback by many of the comments that unabashedly suggest "inbreeding" and that rural people are "getting what they deserve." All of which reveal our deep national contempt for the rural poor, chiefly white rural poor. As nation of white privilege and deep social class divisions, we (mainly middle/upper-middle class whites) have a difficult time reconciling "white trash" or "trailer trash." As Wise points out "to be white and poor in a nation that is rooted in the notion of white domination and supremacy is to fail to live up to that society's expectations; and to fail to live up to those expectations...is to render oneself vulnerable to a special kind of stigma." So, rather than deal head-on with the issues of poverty and exploitation, we middle-class whites use "white trash" as our scapegoats. We pass all the problems that exist in white America writ large (e.g., racism) down the social class line to those whom we have made our whipping post. They are the safe targets of our class contempt and our white guilt.
Consequently, because we qualify poor whites as "trash", we are signaling that they are somehow not entirely white, an aberration or anomaly of whiteness. We make it hard to care about such people, and as Matt Wary notes, that is why "white trash" rolls off the tongue with "condescending ease." The phrase reveals the white supremacist notions that we hold as a nation. That is, to classify a group of whites as backwards or not quite white is to suggest that they somehow do not embody the purity and righteousness that is whiteness in America. The phrase sets ontological limits on whiteness or what it means to be white in America, to separate the pure from the profane.
Poor whites certainly enjoy privileges over the poor-of-color, but as Wise notes, "when one is poor and white, skin is all one has left, and it takes on larger-than-life meaning." In the same way that conservatives blame poor persons-of-color as the source of America's decline, many of the posters here have done the same to poor rural whites. This is a much more complex issue than some here have suggested.
Brian D. Reed
University of Virginia

62. davi2665 - September 24, 2009 at 11:56 am


Congratulations! You managed to provide answers for which there were no questions. Your assertion that rural America receives more from the government than it provides may be true financially for the huge Agribusinesses and the large farming interests that are paid to grow nothing through outdated subsidies. However, these terrible rural places happen to produce the food that feeds the rest of America, not to mention many other parts of the world. I was referring to SMALL BUSINESSES, which I happen to know about because I am part owner of a successful one that is going through the throes of the disincentives I discussed above. Perhaps you might want to get some experience in small business in the real world to understand the challenges they actually face. And the small business challenges extend well beyond rural America.

Your comments on rural America's disproportional clout are most interesting. Perhaps you would like to simply abolish the Senate and get rid of the annoying part of the US Constitution to permit the east and west coast urban populations to dominate everything. Even in some midwestern farm states, the sheer numbers of urban voters in one region overwhelm the entire rest of the state, assuring further urban dominance.

Your characterization of this disproportionate clout as being an important stumbling block to the O'Bama healthcare reform is exactly what I would expect from the great adoring liberal academic constituency. The major stumbling blocks to health care reform are a combination of a large number of Americans not trusting big government to be competent to run medicine, the realization that rationing of care will occur in the form of denial of more expensive treatments, the ballooning of the national debt to a level that will guarantee serious inflation, the continuing medical practice of defensive test ordering to protect against endless law suits (and surely the O'Bama "reforms" will do nothing in the arena of torte reform because the trial lawyers are in the democrats' pockets), and a myriad of other problems that the proposed healthcare reform legislation does not address. I am grateful that we have a balanced legislative process that does not permit an idealogue to ramrod through misguided "reforms" that move us further towards a Marxist state.

63. tuckerdude - September 24, 2009 at 02:03 pm

The study is interesting; the solutions offered are silly.

64. tex823 - September 24, 2009 at 06:01 pm

"The region is in critical need of professional-class workers, and bringing in Hispanic workers for the food industry will not be enough to rejuvenate the region."

I'm offended: I'm Mexican-American and, apparently, if I moved to Iowa, I would only be expected to work in the food industry. I guess my undergraduate and master's degree from the University of Texas will just go to waste if I ever lived in that state. I think I'll just stay in Texas..

65. docjay - September 24, 2009 at 07:29 pm

I guess I am either an idiot or an exception. I left rural America to attend medical school and returned and remained. I have enjoyed some travel, but there is no place like home. Of course, being able to find a job was necessary. When I had to change occupations due to a chronic illness, I considered leaving if I could not find a local teaching job. Rural America is where I am happiest. I am blessed to have raised my children in a rural area. I considered moving for other teaching jobs, but if you adjust for housing costs, there is actually a pay decrease. Yes, I would like to regularly teach less than 25 hours, but I also want to help our students succeed and find jobs here as well as back near their homes. So, I will remain in Kansas with Dorothy and Toto until a "tornado" carries me away.

66. jude42 - September 24, 2009 at 09:40 pm

Some comments suggest that what is needed to revialize small towns, especially in Iowa, is a couple of small businesses. Any business large or small relys on supply and demand so what would this miracle business be.....methmart. People who have lost everything including their dignity often find ways to escape. Some of us took a plane or a train , a car, or even hitched in(70's).
Many of the remaining have found another escape.

You have to have lived through years of the brain drain to understand it.

67. rachel312 - September 25, 2009 at 06:36 am

My urban east coast students (usually born and raised in places like NYC, Phila, Baltimore, and urban NJ) have DEEPLY entrenched prejudices against the small towns, rural areas, and people in parts of the country they've never seen. I suspect their parents do too and I see frequently in places like the pastiche in the NY Times that journalists hold these ideas firmly in their subconsciousnesses as well. How does one raise political consciousness about the need for national policy around rural development, when this overarching coastal prejudice is a mainstay in subconscious ideas about race, poverty, education, income...? I hope these authors are creating a good start and justify the need for rural development better than this short article above.

68. rgu918 - September 25, 2009 at 09:07 am


"I honestly don't understand the impulse of many educated liberals to flock to places like Austin, Portland, etc. . . . But most of the time, they don't actually attend operas, go to museums, or do anything they couldn't do for fun in a small town."

Does the availability of capital and opportunities in urban areas actually need a defense? Well here it is:

I'm a student in the Seattle area (and previously lived in Portland for 8 years) and in my free time, I like to take classes in aerials, which is a type of acrobatics you can see in Cirque du Soleil. Sometimes I read the local amateur newspapers for heads up on festivals and events, such as when fashion trade shows come into town. In the past I've attended lectures held by a non-profit group which brings in people like Fareed Zakaria and Malcolm Gladwell. Among my friends, activities granted by living urban include: working at Amazon.com and playing with the Kindle, nurturing an interest in tea by visiting specialty tea stores, being a computer programmer by day and playing a pink toy piano in a local musical group by night, going to anime festivals, stargazing with amateur astronomers' groups . . .

The opportunities and cultural capital - as well as the human capital (education, health, well-being) that these eventually amount to - go beyond the textbook examples of the opera and ballet.

69. ruralben - September 25, 2009 at 10:30 am

Yes, rural counties do lose 18-25 year old young people. At the same time, even in counties that have lost overall population, there is a gain in the 35 to 49 age cohort. Why do we keep calling this the loss of the 18-25 a brain drain when these 35-49 year old people have a MINIMUM of a high school degree (almost half have bachelors degrees)? Let's just call it the youth drain - the brain drain term extends the notion that people in rural America are uneducated.

On a related note, our small towns would have died decades ago if we did not have people aged 35-49 returning to our towns. Let the kids go - we need to focus on providing true economic opportunities for those that do choose to move there at the "next stage" of their life. This, however, is much easier said than done.

70. caengla - September 25, 2009 at 04:29 pm

I echo the comments of jjhelversmith1973. I left because that was not the life I wanted. I was miserable growing up in a community where I was related to half the kids in school - which meant I saw them all the time inside and outside of school (and your dating options are also thereby limited). And the other half was (and probably are) still holding grudges against people for something said or done in kindergarten. My family, though they miss me terribly, supported my choice then and they support me now. Anyone who disapproves of my decision is no friend of mine. Those who choose to stay must live with the consequences of their choices just as I must live with mine. We can either accept our situation or do something to try and change it.

Don't even try to drag me back to a place where there are no jobs for which I'm well-suited, where the educational system would do my daughter more harm than good, and where there's nothing to do but watch the corn grow. It's a great place to visit when I'm homesick or need to relax, but please don't make me stay.

71. jotorious - September 25, 2009 at 05:52 pm

I left my hometown because there was nothing there for me. No job prospects. No real nightlife, No restaurants, nobody new to socialize with. I would love to have the inner suburban comforts of Metro DC with the open spaces and slow living of Po-Dunk, Maryland. But it's not possible. All of these solutions require money, which the taxpayers in small town america, repeatedly refuse to pony up. The call us tax and spend liberals, but the places in america w/ the most jobs all overwhelmingly have active Government that regularly interferes with the free-markets that small-town america allegedly love so much.

72. phronesis - September 26, 2009 at 08:22 am

As I read through the condescending remarks about "backwards, xenophobic, and uncultured" small town America I'm reminded of a very instightful thought from Lynard Skynard:

"I hope Neil Young will remember, Southern Man don't need him around anyhow".

I suspect that most of the people who were misfits in the small towns they grew up in are probably misfits in their new urbane, "highly cultured" environments. To those of you don't like the way people in rural America lead their lives then why don't you just leave them alone. It's not as if your solutions for inner city growth and development have worked out all that well.

73. longworth - September 28, 2009 at 10:37 am

The comments so far are as revealing as anything I've ever read about the metro/non-metro split, the huge gap between cities and small towns, especially rural towns, and the scorn (not to say enormous defensiveness) that each holds for the other. Unfortunately, while fascinating, all this misses the very vital points that Carr and Kafalas are making. (Having had a chance to read their upcoming book, I highly recommend it.)

The issue here isn't the superiority of city life over small-town life, or vice versa. That's simply personal choice. The issue is the very future of small towns and, if one agrees these small civilizations are worth saving, how can this happen. Personally, I left my small Iowa home town many years ago, have spent my life in cities, and never regretted it. But many -- even most -- of my high school classmates didn't go to college and spent their lives in the old home town. Having talked with many of them recently, I know they also didn't regret it. At that time, the rural economy had enough good jobs in farming, industry and commerce to enable all these people to achieve economic stability, even prosperity. But, as Carr and Kafalas point out, it is precisely those jobs that have disappeared in the past 20 years of so, not so much through the consolidation of agriculture (that's been going on for a century) as through the out-sourcing of non-agricultural jobs because of the globalization of the economy. In other words, the economy that provided a good life for my classmates doesn't exist any more, meaning there's not much there for their children or grandchildren, who either have to leave or to work two or three bad jobs just to stay afloat. These towns were the product of an agricultural/industrial economy that's vanished. The question is whether they have a place in this new economy.

Carr and Kefalas say that small towns schools are still educating students -- especially those who will stay -- for that vanished economy, to the great disservice of these students. The new role of these schools is the debate they're trying to start.

74. csam6110 - September 28, 2009 at 04:08 pm

rural migration to urban centers is as old as america and older than that. nothing new about it. whats important is the loss of the economies in many rural AND urban areas. been to buffalo new york or youngstown ohio lately? and longworth is correct about the urban vs rural its more preference than anything else. having lived in several small towns, suburbs and big cities i think the stereotypes that people hold are just that.

75. osha_davidson - September 29, 2009 at 11:46 am

In 1986, I moved to Mechanicsville, IA, to write my own book about what the media was wrongly calling "the farm crisis." It was a rural community crisis. I lived there for 3 years, as a single-dad raising my 1st-grader daugher. I devoted one section of the book, "Broken Heartland," to the brain drain problem. I mention this to second the author's statement that the problem is not new.

It wasn't always easy living in M'cVille. I was an outsider on many counts. The town's only Jew, a single father, from Iowa City (the Sodom or Gomorrah of IA) but most of all: a newcomer to a place where most families had lived for generations.

Still, I loved the place. Now, I live in Phoenix, AZ, one of the most populous cities in the US. I love it here. There are tremendous problems and small-minded people everywhere. I agree with csam6110 that some residents of both cities and small towns hold stereotypes of "the other" that are defensive and arrogant and just plain incorrect.

A poll was taken in Mc'Ville before I moved there, asking what residents liked and dislike about their town. The more common "like" was that neighbors were always there for you if you needed help. The number one dislike was "people are always in your business." The essential conundrum for small-towners.

I would guess that if the same poll were taken in Phoenix, the result would be the mirror image of Mc'Ville's. Best thing: you can be whoever you want to be. Worst: Nobody cares.

76. osha_davidson - September 29, 2009 at 11:47 am

In 1986, I moved to Mechanicsville, IA, to write my own book about what the media was wrongly calling "the farm crisis." It was a rural community crisis. I lived there for 3 years, as a single-dad raising my 1st-grader daugher. I devoted one section of the book, "Broken Heartland," to the brain drain problem. I mention this to second the author's statement that the problem is not new.

It wasn't always easy living in M'cVille. I was an outsider on many counts. The town's only Jew, a single father, from Iowa City (the Sodom or Gomorrah of IA) but most of all: a newcomer to a place where most families had lived for generations.

Still, I loved the place. Now, I live in Phoenix, AZ, one of the most populous cities in the US. I love it here. There are tremendous problems and small-minded people everywhere. I agree with csam6110 that some residents of both cities and small towns hold stereotypes of "the other" that are defensive and arrogant and just plain incorrect.

A poll was taken in Mc'Ville before I moved there, asking what residents liked and dislike about their town. The more common "like" was that neighbors were always there for you if you needed help. The number one dislike was "people are always in your business." The essential conundrum for small-towners.

I would guess that if the same poll were taken in Phoenix, the result would be the mirror image of Mc'Ville's. Best thing: you can be whoever you want to be. Worst: Nobody cares.

77. osha_davidson - September 29, 2009 at 11:49 am

In 1986, I moved to Mechanicsville, IA, to write my own book about what the media was wrongly calling "the farm crisis." It was a rural community crisis. I lived there for 3 years, as a single-dad raising my 1st-grader daugher. I devoted one section of the book, "Broken Heartland," to the brain drain problem. I mention this to second the author's statement that the problem is not new.

It wasn't always easy living in M'cVille. I was an outsider on many counts. The town's only Jew, a single father, from Iowa City (the Sodom or Gomorrah of IA) but most of all: a newcomer to a place where most families had lived for generations.

Still, I loved the place. Now, I live in Phoenix, AZ, one of the most populous cities in the US. I love it here. There are tremendous problems and small-minded people everywhere. I agree with csam6110 that some residents of both cities and small towns hold stereotypes of "the other" that are defensive and arrogant and just plain incorrect.

A poll was taken in Mc'Ville before I moved there, asking what residents liked and dislike about their town. The more common "like" was that neighbors were always there for you if you needed help. The number one dislike was "people are always in your business." The essential conundrum for small-towners.

I would guess that if the same poll were taken in Phoenix, the result would be the mirror image of Mc'Ville's. Best thing: you can be whoever you want to be. Worst: Nobody cares.

78. osha_davidson - September 29, 2009 at 11:49 am

In 1986, I moved to Mechanicsville, IA, to write my own book about what the media was wrongly calling "the farm crisis." It was a rural community crisis. I lived there for 3 years, as a single-dad raising my 1st-grader daugher. I devoted one section of the book, "Broken Heartland," to the brain drain problem. I mention this to second the author's statement that the problem is not new.

It wasn't always easy living in M'cVille. I was an outsider on many counts. The town's only Jew, a single father, from Iowa City (the Sodom or Gomorrah of IA) but most of all: a newcomer to a place where most families had lived for generations.

Still, I loved the place. Now, I live in Phoenix, AZ, one of the most populous cities in the US. I love it here. There are tremendous problems and small-minded people everywhere. I agree with csam6110 that some residents of both cities and small towns hold stereotypes of "the other" that are defensive and arrogant and just plain incorrect.

A poll was taken in Mc'Ville before I moved there, asking what residents liked and dislike about their town. The more common "like" was that neighbors were always there for you if you needed help. The number one dislike was "people are always in your business." The essential conundrum for small-towners.

I would guess that if the same poll were taken in Phoenix, the result would be the mirror image of Mc'Ville's. Best thing: you can be whoever you want to be. Worst: Nobody cares.

79. greencabaret - September 30, 2009 at 05:02 am

Really good discussion, vitriol aside. Longworth is right: For too many communities, it's less a quality-of-life issue and, increasingly, a life-or-death issue.

I enjoy the comments from Appalachia, where I grew up. Much of the land there has always been too steep for massive agriculture. The dominant national-interest value, then and now, was mining, involving a radically different rural-industrial dynamic.

Small, independently-owned business was OK, but very high-risk. As a business person, there was no way you could challenge or compete with Big Coal. (For example: being reluctant to pay higher local land taxes than your very large "corporate neighbor.") The "smart money" generally sold out.

In Appalachia, the mountains are older -- and so is this story. From 1950 onward, technological advance, like anywhere, caused steep drops in employment, rural flight, astounding community die-off, and (now) extreme environmental changes (=mountain removal) that challenge even the most idealistic who might want to live there -- coming from either side of the urban-rural, red-blue cultural divide.

Many older rural residents from these towns tell us: "My home-place doesn't exist anymore."

80. hgbegay - September 30, 2009 at 04:47 pm

I live in a small rural, rustic community of 6,000, by choice. I communicate with my colleagues from Berkeley, Stanford, Hong Kong, Peru, etc. via technology, e-com. The nearest population center of some 75,000 is a little over an hour drive, with a university, CC. We have become a small world, technologically. And I can teach from a major university anywhere on our small planet (online) from my rural community. Life anywhere is as you make it - it is time to move on from the "horse-buggy" stereotype of rural America from the last century.

81. jeffyockey - October 01, 2009 at 02:41 am

After a 25 year time away from my small midwest hometown, I returned. In the first month I happened upon and read Kathleen Norris' book, Dakota. It's an honest, reflective look at the challenges a small town faces, and what living in such community is like. It's a good read - and both harsh truths and grace are weaved into her story of moving from New York City to South Dakota. Her perceptive insights gave me a vocabulary for my personal experience as well as the assorted dilemmas my hometown faces.

My hope is for a continuation of "disruptive innovations" that together will reach a critical mass so that vibrate economies in rural areas are possible. (The internet and distance education are two big ones. Renewable energy and new forms/options of great public transportation could be others.)

And one last thought. There are lots of excellent urban churches that small town churches could learn from. Redeemer in NYC, Newsong in Irving, CA, and the Rock Church/Circle Urban Ministry partnership in Chicago are three that come to mind.

82. gtkarn - October 01, 2009 at 09:01 pm

Fascinating material here and I'm glad someone mentioned Wendell Berry, finally. I must say that while many of the proposals make sense to me, I've heard some of this song before: you know, all we have to do is train people for the right jobs (get 'em computer literate etc.) and things will be fine. I've met lts of highly qualified people who trained for those "jobs of the future," many of which have been shipped offshore or whose wages have either stagnated or decreased. The growth of part-time working conditions and the Walmartization of employment should also be noted.

I wonder, also,about a deeper issue, i.e.whether the rootlessness of many Americans, their constant change of location, hasn't eroded our sense of community --- so much so that our "representative voices" become the hacks on talk radio as we no longer speak to or wioth but at one another.

Finally, while I haven't read all the comments, the one from the MBA extolling the virtues of small-town life (heterosexual marriage, church, etc.) would make lots of folks less than enthusiatic about moving into the country. Perhaps among all these comments there is undue generalizing, but gosh, that MBA'er's comment seems to support the views of so many who painted rural communities as cultural wastelands.

83. pseudothyrum - October 06, 2009 at 09:10 pm

The neglect of rural areas and small towns shows that our civilization is undergoing collapse. Agriculture is literally the basis of all culture and society; thus, the neglect of agriculture will, in due time, cause a civilization to collapse.

Spengler says:

"What makes the man of the world-cities incapable of living on any but this artificial footing is that the cosmic beat in his being is every decreasing, while the tensions of his waking- consciousness become more and more dangerous...this then, is the conclusion of the city's history; growing from primitive barter-centre to Culture-city and at last to world-city, it sacrifices first the blood and soul of its creators to the needs of its majestic evolution, and then the lst flower of that growth to the spirit of civilization--and so, doomed, moves on to final self-destruction."

84. rebel40 - October 09, 2009 at 03:40 pm

Back in the early '60s, my wife and I (she rural/small town, me mid-sized city) left our home base (large city school, felt like eccentrics among our classmates) for grad school education in the "wicked East". There, we were often painted as country bumpkins ("from way out West"), talked funny, and didn't seem to appreciate the culture and bustle of NYC and its environs. We carved our own path, stayed East becasue of jobs, and discovered that there are decent places to live in the East (just as there are perfectly lousy places). Again due to jobs, we moved to the Chicago area (like NYC, a mixed bag), and survived 30 years of suburban living, not that bad overall. We then moved back to central MN to be near family and then to northern New England to be near kids and grandkids.

Summing up our accumulated wisdom: we apprecitate living near mid-size cities but not in them (suburbs aren't that bad if you find a niche). You're always going to find people you can barely tolerate but you can find friends in the majority of places (close by family helps too). We now live in a small town near a small city that's also a University town and that really helps. And yes, a moderate church of our life-long faith sure helps too.

Especially since our families have rural and immigrant origins, we too deplore the decline of small towns and rural life, especially since a good share of our relatives still live there. Our experiences living near a small town 50 miles from my home city were good (including access to good medical care, not addressed in the comments) and we could have contiued there for good. However, even cities can resemble small towns with all the pluses and minuses. The neighborhood of my home town still does.

85. jas4850 - October 14, 2009 at 04:25 pm

I grew up on a farm in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. I left to go away to boarding school and then went away to college. I've lived in Boston for many years and am now a doctoral student in the sociology of education. Even if I wanted to return to my hometown, there would be no jobs in my field. I could not live in a place with so few cultural, intellectual, and entertainment options. My childhood was idyllic in many ways, but what I remember most strongly was the desperate feeling of being trapped in a place with few options. I remember the incredible intolerance of many of my classmates and lack of aspirations toward anything beyond high school or low-wage employment. (I have terrible memories, for instance, of the only black family who moved to our town, and how one of their children was chased down the hallway with cruel children making ape noises at him. They moved within a year. My family were basically the only Democrats in town, and I was picked on constantly for being the children of hippies, atheists, and commies.)

Yes, rural America is worth saving, of course. Just as we as a society need to provide these towns with greater educational and economic opportunities, somehow rural Americans must learn to accept that their way of life -- white, Christian, unaccepting of cultural and intellectual diversity -- must somehow acclimate to the fact that American society is becoming more highly educated, urban, and culturally tolerant. Rural America needs to adapt to the skills, cultural framework, and knowledge needed to thrive in the 21st century, but the rest of America also need to be willing to give them a hand through federal, state, and education policy.

86. theoldgeezer - November 07, 2009 at 04:47 am

Wow, what a fascinating discussion. I have become a high tech rural entrepreneur myself, living in a town of 700, more than an two hour's drive from any city over 120,000 people, where "town" means the "big" town of 35,000 a half hour's highway drive from here. And that's a half hour at 60, not bumper to bumper congestion. Being a high tech entrepreneur in a rural area has great advantages. Low cost of living, widespread need for your services, and no smog, crowds, or traffic jams. Indeed, rural America has issues with Meth, pot, and we have our share of "non-achievers". Unlike in the city, though, they're everyone's neighbors, not relegated to a ghetto somewhere.

I read with some amusement at the people who start their sniping about us being "conservative" and how too many react badly to them. Oh, and the funny one, was describing Tofu and almond milk as "staples". Staples? Really? What silliness!

What a huge number of commenters here fail to recognize is that while rural America is under assault economically, by brain draining traditions, and often, even by irrelevant or outmoded ways of thinking among those charged with leadership, the largest assault on rural America comes directly from the governments controlled by those self described elites, who lack any comprehension of how their attempts to impose their version of "paradise" upon others has resulted in a near seige mentality on the part of small town and rural residents who struggle, often daily and often for decades, to try to survive the burdens imposed upon them by those who have no idea what unintended consequences really mean to those who live outside their cloistered, often liberal, and often "progressive" world of artificial needs and values.

So, do you REALLY need tofu and almond milk? Why do you think your choices are superior to your neighbors? And why are so many of you surprised when your condescension, or your self identified allegiances to those who have acted out or expressed condescension, is met with less than magnanimous reactions? In my state, the the government is controlled by the "liberal" metroponlitan area, which is tiny in comparison to the rest of the state. Yet, it has consistently adopted wide ranging policies that have all but bankrupted both the state, the metropolitan areas, and the vast majority of industry outside of the small metro area, which hasn't the political lobbying muscle to defend itself.

Widespread rural unemployment, starting during the boom years of the mid 80's and continuing to today, is a direct result, not of "economic change" but "forced ideological control" of our state's economy. We're near the top of the list in unemployment, many counties haven't seen single digit unemployment in more than 3 or 4 decades, our rural schools got their funding base wiped out, our industries that funded our roads and infrastructure are all gone. And the "liberal" government continues its assault on what remains. All the while, continuing to mouth platitudes about "green" jobs and other such malarky, with exactly nothing but failure to show for it.

While the authors above are quite good at static analysis of the current conditions, they seems somewhat unfamiliar with the POV of those who are actually IN the rural areas looking outward toward them. It's as if they are examining a picture that has a single POV, not realizing there's a whole unseen reality looking back from the other way directed at them. Academically, this is unforgiveable. Politically, it's a very old and time honored, if intellectually indefensible, narrative.

I note with some sadness, the repeated question about "is the small town worth saving" question. Engage yourself in the dialog that murmurs quietly through any rural community, and the question isn't much different.. "Are the cities actually worth attempting to salvage?" I note with some irony that self proclaimed intellectuals and "educated" people and "sophisticated types" will bemoan and decry the "lack of diversity" and "unsocial" aspects of small town life. At the same time, I've come to find it amazing that people consider it impossible to survive with an artificial world of entertainment and endless distraction or they professed to be "bored to death". I guess they find being alone with themselves just that uninteresting, to play the "trading barbs" game.

What I'd like to say that summarizes my thoughts... Rural America needs "saving", but not nearly so much from itself, as it does from an arrogant and impractical urban culture that has set itself to remake the world into its imagination... and at the same time, rural and small town America needs to come to understand a little better that the globe has shrunk all the way to our doorstep, and that evolution of economics, entrepreneurship, and business is required. You'll find this happening, to some degree, especially in the north and in small pockets of "rural" living.

And, for the love of Pete, would you liberals stop thinking your politics are superior, and thus, so are you? Once you fix your ghettos and no longer have poor in the city, rural Americans might lend credence to what you promote. It's a very conservative thing to be RESULTS oriented, and until you show results, consider me and the rest of us out here in flyover, drive past, and "wilderness" country to be less than fully impressed. And, while I love authentic Pad Thai or Almond Subgum Chow Mein with a passion, the idea that I "need" indian or Thai curry or even Tofu or Asian spices or a wide array of imported foods to live a fulfilled life seems rather shallow. I have to first try to keep my business afloat, deal with what to do with the farmer that can't pay me this year, or the deadbeats that ran up a big bill and vanished, getting a replacement 4 wheel drive so I can get through the snowdrifts this winter (or maybe next winter, this one's upon us and I've not got the funds yet). This preoccupation with practical matters, DOES color one's politics and philosophy. I apologize not the slightest for it.

Perhaps you could meet me halfway somewhere?

87. caster - December 20, 2009 at 11:53 pm

I can't believe how the researchers here get most of it wrong. The real problem with rural areas is that they offer a dull life. I am living in Midwest, a well established suburb. If I could, I would get out of this place even I am in mid 50s, for the simple reason that life is very dull here. Everything is closed after 9:00pm. The place looks rundown, comparing to China.

By the way, the researchers believe that they can get the Ph.D.'s from China to live in rural America. What a wrong idea. The Ph.D.'s from China won't even live in Midwest cities because back home life is much more exciting. The cities are much larger and more modern than those in Iowa and Indiana. Why would they come here to rural areas in Midwest. They could do that in China if they want to live in countryside. The people in rural China are fleeing their home villages in lighting speed. We still think that China is a poor country, and rural areas in America are better than anywhere in a country like China. Go to China and see for yourself. Even our cities are not close to theirs. Cities like New York can't even compete with a city like Shanghai in China! Wake up.

88. mcmahota - December 21, 2009 at 10:05 am

The brain drain is real. While oldgeezer seems to have spun into his own creation of facts (maybe it was the 133 word sentence that made me think he was a little irrational and on a rant) his response is real and heartfelt. He reduces this problem to liberals vs. conservatives, a posture that seldom effectively draws out collaboration and loyal opposition.

His rant does illustrate the nature of the problem quite well. Change is difficult because all of us fear what we will be asked to give up. Oldgeezer is a realist and we need his voice in the process of adapting to a third option as Richard Florida describes. It is one that creates a balance (or harmony) between "self" and "community".

The Brain Drain is a complex, adaptive problem (Heifetz, 1994) and to solve it we will need to develop our adaptive capacity. This probably requires clarifying our values and make progress on the problems the values define. Richard Neustadt (1994) wrote, "People adapt when they they are able to clearly articulate thier values and purposes by facing painful circumstances and developing new attitudes and behaviors. They learn to live with the tings they cannot change and take responsibility for those that they can" (p. 4).

Successfully dealing with the Brain Drain will require us to take along the things that are truly important (our values and purpose) and leave the baggage behind (biases about what people eat and do for fun, angst over politics). Rural America can recapture its authentic self in establishing a place that offers the "community" that rural America is so adept at creating, But, it must be a new community that may require opening up hearts and minds to new cultural interests, diversity, and acceptance of others who don't look and act like us.

My compliments to Carr and Kafalas. The essay/study is potentially generative because it is a wake-up call that has resonated with many on this forum and others as well, I am sure. It may have the desired effect of creating disequilibrium to drive us to come together and act upon a solution.


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