Endangered Species: America's Heartland

Why the rural youth exodus matters to America

Thursday, November 5, 2009

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.

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, the problem of the youth exodus from rural America is one that simply cannot be ignored.

“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 sends more of its young men and women to the military than any other region.”

Kefalas is the co-author of a newly released book, Hollowing out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America, the research for which was funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Transitions to Adulthood study in 2001. Kefalas and her co-author Patrick Carr, Ph.D., traveled 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.

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.

“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.”

Media Contact

Kefalas, an associate professor of sociology, can be reached for comment at mkefalas@sju.edu or by calling 610-660-1385.

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