Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America

Patrick J. Carr

Book cover

I got interested in this book after reading a review in the Wall Street Journal. Essentially, it is a case study of people who grew up in a small town in Iowa, tracked down about twenty years after graduating high school. The authors are interested in the pressures and resources put into high-performing kids in small towns to get them to leave for better opportunities elsewhere, and the effect this has on the towns–in essence, the authors argue, these small towns are digging their own graves.

I was a little daunted by the prospect of reading a work of sociology, but this is very light on the academic terminology and reads like a popular book. A few takeaways:

1. I am glad there are people thinking about the issues specific to rural communities. It seems strange to devote so much effort toward studying the peculiar issues of urban environments but not those of rural environments.

2. I’m still skeptical of the authors’ maintained assumption that the community itself is a unit of analysis whose welfare we should value beyond the aggregate welfares of the individuals comprising it. I especially was interested in the scene where the researchers boldly tell the high school principal that the school is killing the town by investing so many resources into the high-performing kids who are invariably going to leave, and the principal basically responds, “We all know that, what we care about is giving the kids the best start we can, no matter where they will end up.” Is the duty of the community of today, so far as such a duty exists, to the members of the community of today or to the members of the community in perpetuity?

3. The book has an interesting treatment of the role of the US military in these small towns, and particularly in determining the futures of kids. It is not as simple as I thought.

4. They don’t go too far in offering solutions, which I think is good, but they do give some recommendations. I do think they are right to oppose the Richard Florida argument of “If you build amenities, they will come,” and to focus on the fact that the only things young people really care about are good jobs and the chance to meet other young people. I was surprisingly persuaded by the Popper proposal for the Buffalo Commons–in short, to return a great deal of Middle America to be protected wild prairie. I am not sure yet whether I think it is callous for me to like this idea. But the Wendell Berry voice in my head liked it.


My Goodreads rating: 3 stars