Hollowing Out the Middle:
Community Book Read Hopes to Address the ‘Rural Brain Drain’
By TOM KOCAL | firstname.lastname@example.org
LANARK – Penny Lauritzen has seen the changes, and doesn’t like them one bit. The Lanark businesswoman and past president of Illinois Agri Women says it’s time to take a closer look at what rural policy experts call the “rural brain drain.”
“Rural Communities suffer from Rural Brain Drain,” Lauritzen said. “Do we preclude death is imminent? Most small community residents will respond ‘Not on your life!’”
Prompted by a proposal last winter by Successful Farming magazine for a Community Book Read of Hollowing Out the Middle–The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America, Lauritzen spearheaded the project.
“As Cheryl Tevis wrote in her February 2012 Successful Farming Magazine article, ‘Winter is a great time to curl up with a good book,’” Lauritzen stated. “There are 12 copies of Hollowing Out the Middle floating around the Lanark/Shannon community this winter, compliments of an Illinois Agri-Women grant to challenge a community to read and then review concepts presented in the book. It is then in the hands of those that participate in the Community Book Read to determine if they observe problems or issues similar to those discussed in the book and want to brainstorm strategies to address those problems or issues.”
Hollowing Out the Middle tells the story of the husband & wife team of sociologists Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, who moved to Iowa in 2001 to understand the rural brain drain and the exodus of young people from America’s countryside. Articles and books—notably Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class—celebrate the migration of highly productive and creative workers to key cities.
But Carr and Kefalas wanted to know what happens to the towns that they desert, and to the people who are left behind?
To answer that question, Carr and Kefalas moved to “Ellis” (a pseudonym used to protect the community and its residents’ privacy), a small town of two thousand in Northeast Iowa, not far from Carroll County. Ellis is typical of many places struggling to survive, and Iowa is typical of many states in the Heartland, aging rapidly. One reason is that many small towns simply aren’t regenerating, but another is that its educated young people are leaving in droves.
In Ellis, Carr and Kefalas met the working-class “stayers,” trying to survive in the region’s dying agro-industrial economy; the high-achieving and college-bound “achievers,” who often leave for good; the “seekers” who head off to war to see what the world beyond offers; and the “returners,” who eventually circle back to their hometowns.
What surprised Carr and Kefalas 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 under-investing in–and under-estimating–those who choose to stay, even though these young people are their best chance for a future.
The emptying out of small towns is a national concern, but there are strategies for arresting the process and creating sustainable, thriving communities. Hollowing Out the Middle is a wake-up call we cannot afford to ignore—not only because sixty million Americans still live in rural communities and small towns, but because our nation’s economic health and future is tied to the Heartland.
Lauritzen, Rhett Coatney, Connie Lower, Mindy Lower, Sue & Jared Sauer, Kathy Anderson, Doug Block, Rosemary Flikkema, John Huggins, Amanda Klinefelter, Tom Kocal, Marcia Lathrop, Lenore Schrader, John Sgro, Laurie Stitzel, and Jodi York have read the book and are willing to participate in the first round of the Lanark Community Book Read. These 17 people represent many areas of the community: business, government, agriculture, and religion.
“Anyone that wishes to join in the review of Hollowing Out the Middle with others from the Lanark/Shannon community are invited to join us at 6 PM on Thursday evening, February 28, 2013, at Lanark’s Heritage Center. A big pot of chili will be on to warm you through and through on a cold winter evening and the conversation promises to be lively and quick. Mark your calendar right now and save the date.”
Copies of the book are available at the Lanark Public Library or you can e-mail Penny Lauritzen at Lauritzen@farmestate.com to add your name to the waiting list to join in the Community Book Read.