Hollowing Out the Middle – a book review

HERD ABOUT IT?

by Ana Grarian

Ana has been attempting to wade through “Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America” by Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas PB $16.00 9780807006146.

Carr and Kefalas are researchers sent by the Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood to live in a small town with one school, in the middle somewhere, away from the ocean and a metropolitan city and in a red state. They are one of five teams looking at transitioning into adulthood and the only team looking at a rural town.
“We are not experts on rural America, small towns or regional development..” No sh*** Sherlock. The disdain these authors show for rural America has Ana eating nails and spitting tacks! Let’s start with the biased labels that these “researchers” use.
Achievers vs Stayers. Achievers are the ones who most succeed at school and not surprisingly are most often from the higher income families. An interesting finding is how these students seem to have been cherry picked by teachers, parents and other community members to be mentored and coddled into getting out of town and into University. State College or State University are only mildly acceptable. To really achieve it is best to go to the coast.
My argument is in contrasting them with “Stayers”, because of course, as these authors present it, the only way to “achieve” is to leave. What about if we labeled them “Leavers” vs “Stayers”? That might have been a fairer designation. Apparently folks who stay in their home town to build John Deere tractors, care for the elderly in nursing homes, or raise a family have not “achieved” anything in their lives. Success and achievement can only be measured by bottom line, urban standards. I guess Mother Theresa was a complete loser.

The authors also seem to think that “Stayers” stay because they want to live in a place where everyone is and thinks the same. Or to put it in their terms – because they can’t handle diversity. I think the authors better get to know their neighbors a little better. Yeah the population is overwhelmingly Christian and White, but look closer and there are lots of differences in that crowd. There is a whole gamut of political, social and religious beliefs. LGBT is not limited to the big city, though sadly it is often less well received in rural areas, but that is changing. One of my favorite things about small towns are the odd balls who are loved and even celebrated. When everyone knows each other and are often related, the edge is taken off the differences. Uncle Ernie might be a racist and Aunt Jane might be a flaming Liberal and Cousin Joe might be a kook, but when you love and depend on each other, those traits are overlooked and attention is more likely placed on where you agree.

This book is well written and brings some good points to light. If you too can’t understand why anyone would choose to live in a small town, you might be able to finish the book without throwing it across the room. If you do – let me know how it ended. And if you work for the MacArthur Foundation or some other organization that wants to do research on small town America – next time include a small town man or woman in as part of the team.

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Ana Grarian