Endangered Species: America's Heartland

SJU Sociologist Publishes Book on Exodus of Rural Youth

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

by Kelly Welsh '05 (M.A.)

According to Saint Joseph's University sociologist Maria Kefalas, Ph.D., the heartland of America's greatest export is no longer corn and wheat, but rather its young and talented people. A new book out this month, co-authored with Patrick Carr, Ph.D. (Rutgers University), entitled Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America, explores the mass exodus of youth from rural America and how that migration is affecting the areas they're leaving behind.

The research for the book was funded by the MacArthur Foundation's Transitions to Adulthood study in 2001, and led Kefalas and Carr to "Ellis," Iowa (Ellis is a pseudonym), where they conducted interviews with young people five and 10 years out of college, as well as with local school, business and government personnel. Kefalas and Carr also spent a good deal of time living in Ellis, taking in the culture.

What they found was that, surprisingly, small towns are contributing to their own demise by encouraging the most talented and creative of their young people to leave the nest and pursue lives outside of their rural hometowns. The result is an emptying out that places these small towns in danger of extinction.

The authors argue that there are a number of reasons why the survival of America's heartland matters.

"The nation's food supply is undeniably linked to the region, as is the election of its presidents," says Kefalas. "Not to mention that rural America feeds more of its young men and women to the military than any other region."

Kefalas, associate professor of sociology, proposes that young people in America's rural small towns can be split into categories.

"There are the 'stayers,' who never leave and begin working blue-collar jobs in high school. There are the 'seekers' who might join the military as a way out. The 'returners' always circle back to their small towns, while the 'achievers' get out and stay out, pursuing higher education and successful careers in America's metropolitan centers," she explains.

With one out of every five Americans still living in non-metropolitan areas, and considering that those areas now face natural decline with more deaths than births, this problem is one that simply cannot be ignored. Hollowing Out the Middle does more than present the problem in a compelling way; it also offers real solutions for these dwindling towns.

"Small towns are short-circuiting the educational and economic opportunities for their young people by not investing in those who are likely to stay and return," Kefalas maintains. "By matching the non-college-bound with vocational education and access to better job training, they will be better prepared to give back to their own communities."

The book also suggests that immigration is among the fastest, most effective ways to rebuild the diminishing populations. Kefalas recognizes that the proposal is controversial.

"People in these smaller towns are unlikely to readily accept those who are different from them," she says. "Yet, in order to continue to exist, their old way of life must end."


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