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

3.67  ·  Rating details ·  356 ratings  ·  74 reviews
Startling research shows that small towns—from Maine to Missouri—are in jeopardy from exporting their most precious resource: young people.
A Midwest Connections Pick In 2001, the MacArthur Foundation dispatched sociologists Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas to a small town in Iowa to chronicle the exodus of young people from America’s countryside and to understand the p
Hardcover, 302 pages
Published October 1st 2009 by Beacon Press (MA) (first published January 1st 2009)
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Jan 19, 2014 rated it did not like it
Shelves: current-affairs
This is a prime example of why sociology is not science. No testable hypothesis, or repeatable data, just a mélange of anecdotes from which sweeping generalizations are drawn.

I live in a rural area (the closest town to me has a population of 2,500) and as a community college dean (population of the town 27,000 but a district covering hundreds of square miles that borders on NE Iowa) got to observe many rural high schools over thirty years. These two researchers, husband and wife, have the temer
Oct 10, 2018 rated it it was ok
Recommended to Jessica by: WPL Wed Book Discussion
Shelves: non-fiction
What an unfortunate book. Perhaps it's simply that a decade turns out to be too long for this kind of "research" and speculation to survive, or maybe it really is that the authors are so biased they couldn't see how flawed their premise was.

My initial issue is with the idea of "brain drain" which I find completely insulting to the many farmers, manual laborers, and others who are often smarter than most of the college professors I've ever met. If the authors had limited their point to specifica
Neil Griffin
Jan 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
This was an interesting book with a clear thesis about an important subject; namely, the process of young talent leaving rural communities for cities with thriving economies. Those that stay behind aren't equipped to deal with the modern economy, since the education system in their town favored those who were "destined" to leave and the new economy doesn't provide middle class jobs for farming and factories anymore.

Setting aside the reasons our economy doesn't work for blue-collar workers anymor
Feb 18, 2010 rated it liked it
Borrowed Nick's copy of this book - thanks Nick! I enojyed reading it, but it's a little hard to categorize it. It seems like it is supposed to be a work of sociology, but the authors' choice to center their entire study around one town is strange for an academic work. They do bring in some statistics here and there, but they spend more time telling the story of one town and assuming that would hold true for many small towns in rural/midwest areas (which it probably would).

Personally, I would h
Nov 14, 2009 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Sumner, Iowa residents
Recommended to Brennan by: Britnee Ramirez
I can't say that I hated reading this book, because I actually was very interested in the topic and could hardly put the book down. However, the reasoning behind my quick pace was not because this book was good. It was because this book is written about my hometown in Iowa. Although all names are changed, I could guess most of the individuals' true identities. Because I could do this, it made it that much more interesting to me. I do have many criticisms having grown up in this place and been ob ...more
Sep 22, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was an interesting academic study of small Midwestern towns' struggles with staying alive as their young, well-educated residents hit the road and don't look back. The authors made some great observations on the different types of young people -- those who stay and those who go -- and why they act as they do. Most importantly, they hope to raise a discussion nationwide about why we should care that small towns are dying and how these towns may be contributing to their own demise. Interestin ...more
Aug 31, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Interesting look at the rural "brain drain" through a community in Iowa. Rural high schools groom and nurture the best and brightest students who then leave for college and settle in urban areas, never to return. Schools and communities also fail to nuture those who stay, inadvertantly "hollowing out" small towns. Education reform and thoughtful investments in rural economies are some of the suggested solutions. ...more
Feb 24, 2010 rated it liked it
I appreciated this take on the rural brain drain. Very reminiscent of a project I did in my last semester in college for a geography class. I'll admit to being a little defensive of some stereotypes presented, but in general there are truths to be told. Also doesn't hurt that Steve and I are included in the category of hopeful signs for the rural community. ...more
Jul 30, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I learned that the authors were biased against rural America and working class people based on their labels of Achiever vs Stayer. I think this book has some validity and is worth reading but apparently the authors think anyone who returns to their rural roots have not achieved anything in their life even if they are police, teachers parents etc.
Nov 23, 2013 added it
Shelves: adult, nonfiction
(Note: this review was written about three books thematically linked. See titles in content:)

Separately, these are all well-written and readable studies of Midwestern life. The authors have taken their time to interact and even live with their subjects, lending their portrayals of small-town folks touches of realism rather than resorting to caricature. Methland, naturally, deals with the methamphetamine epidemic in Oelwein, Iowa: one small town among many ravaged by the eponymous drug. The citiz
Nick Klagge
Nov 08, 2009 rated it liked it
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.

Jan 13, 2011 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
K.A. Jordan
The entire country is becoming more and more polarized to the seacoasts and the big cities. This is not the figment of our collective imagination. "Hollowing out the Middle" is a book that explores the plight of the small towns in America's Heartland.

Written by Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, "Hollowing out the Middle" discusses a phenomenon called 'Rural Brain Drain' where the Achievers, the best and brightest of a given class, are groomed by their teachers to leave home, never to return.
Ethan Campbell
I had a strange experience while reading this book, of recognizing myself in a sociological study. Through copious data, Carr and Kefalas describe essentially my own childhood and young adulthood in rural Nebraska (they focus on Iowa), where as a high-achieving student, every academic resource in the school was directed toward me, and the expectation of literally everyone in town was that I would leave and make my life and career somewhere else -- which is exactly what I did. No one in town had ...more
Nov 19, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: midwest
This provocative book draws on interviews and participant observer research in a small town (pop. 2,014) in northeastern Iowa. The obligatory typologies that characterize sociological studies simplify almost as much as they illuminate, but these two sociologists do seem to have avoided the most egregious rural stereotyping of the sort that Stephen Bloom engaged in in his account of Postville, Iowa, and they do seem to have genuinely listened to their informants. And while they engage in clear-ey ...more
Jul 23, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: own
I've been on a quest to learn about the 'middle of America' and the American small town these days and this book was an excellent step in that journey. I tend to divide sociology into 2 camps: "Pop Sociology" and the "Academic Sociology"...this was definitely the later.

Thick in concepts and information, it really details the young people growing up in small town America and why they're encouraged to leave or ignored if they stay, breaking down the fabric of communities that are slowly dying.

I read this as part of a research project for a policy initiative on rural education. No one at ED knows anything about rural education, so I was given the task to research and report. Now this book doesn't directly relate to rural education, but a lot of its conclusions have major implications on rural ed. This was an anecdotal look at the people who leave or stay in this small rural town in Iowa that is supposed to be representative of rural America. While I am not the biggest fan of "intervie ...more
Dec 23, 2010 rated it really liked it
Carr & Kefalas present a phenomenal research project that examines the brain drain crisis affecting America's rural communities. The narrative that they provide is quite compelling in explaining why young people leave, stay, and return to rural areas. As the two have spent most of their lives in urban environments, they really provide a balanced outsider's view of the situation and maintain a very academic prose without being condescending or playing into negative rural stereotypes (like in What ...more
Aug 31, 2019 rated it liked it
Thoughtful piece on the emptying out of small town America. A husband/wife team of sociologists lived in a small town in Iowa (name changed to protect local sensibilities). Quite good at dissecting the comings and goings of the young kids finishing high school into achievers who leave, the stayers, and returners. The authors offer a variety of policy recommendations on how to stop the drain and prevent the demise of vast swaths of the Midwest. Unclear how much success the local and national poli ...more
Beth Neu
Jul 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
Wow! Hopefully there is a future for "Middle America" and rural communities and you don't have to be a coastal city to succeed economically. In my travels around the U.S. and work with small to mid-size towns in Indiana, I have witnessed first-hand many of the issues and problems discussed in this book. On the whole, I agree with their analysis and conclusions. However, there is hope! There are some local leaders who have made a difference and are striving to improve their communities and the ci ...more
Dec 31, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book was fascinating for me, because the small Iowan town the sociologists studied is my actual home town. This book rings (depressingly) true; small towns do groom their best kids to leave and tend to ignore the people most likely to stick around. But I do wonder: Is this a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I found myself wanting more out of the "solutions" section of the book. While I was glad to see that the authors acknowledged money as a major reason for people leaving, I wanted more, I guess,
Feb 17, 2013 rated it really liked it
From someone who lives in small town Iowa, I would say they hit the nail on the head. It was hard to read at first because I saw myself as one of the parents who raised their children in the 80's and early 90's. One was an achiever and one was a stayer. They described the school and community attitude to a tee. It was good to see something in print that most Iowans already knew. We were loosing our young people. I think that the small town will survive. We are after all the descendents of the pi ...more
Sep 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: have-read
My personal interest in the book comes from having grown up in the area near the town of "Ellis, IA". I grew up in South Central Minnesota in a town of an even smaller size (approximately 600). The description of the recent state of affairs in their book is a telling and accurate portrait of these kinds of places in the Midwest. The book has a very Iowan focus, centering the issues of coming of age for 20 and 30 year olds in one specific town. I am not certain how scalable there ideas are for ot ...more
Joyce M. Tice
Aug 19, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Quick Read. These people have really hit the nail on the head in their understanding of coming of age in a rural community. Excellent research. It confirms what we all know through experience, about the socio-economic and cultural issues of small communities whether in the Midwest of their study or the Northeast. it is right on in describing the social layers in rural high schools and the expectations of those in each segment. Anyone who grew up in a rural area will recognize what they have docu ...more
Aug 28, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book is a very interesting look at the decline of small towns in the Midwest. As someone who grew up in rural small town USA it is easy to relate to the studies and results the authors found. I would enjoy if they would do a follow up study now several years later and see what the results are. I think that while some of the items addressed in the book are still relevant, I also believe there are other pressing matters such as lack of technical infrastructure and public transportation that k ...more
Dec 06, 2016 rated it really liked it
The conundrum of what to do with the dying towns is one that will not be easily solved. The desire to keep things "as they always have been" will work at cross purposes with any plan. Those mindsets are firm. The middle states didn't see the take-over of big agri-business and the factories shuttering, much as the frog in the pot doesn't notice the water getting hotter. It doesn't help that the 2 coasts tend to look down on the middle states as backward, or that the middle states cling to a bygon ...more
Interesting book on the way the youth decide to leave or stay in a small community between the size of 500 and 1000 in rural america. This book is set in the ficticious city of Ellis Iowa. It came out of a real town in Iowa.

Huge imiplications for places like Kanasa where I live. But, so are set to be able to address this issue better than others.

Did book review on it and will hear author speak soon.
Jun 05, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended by the UI faculty engagement corps, the book seems to be spot on from what I've experienced as a lifetime Iowan. Small town mentality needs to change or their demise is inevitable. There will always be Achievers, the best and brightest who go on to bigger and better things, but focusing more educational efforts toward the Stayers is key to building a workforce capable of performing 21st century jobs. ...more
Margaret Sankey
Jul 23, 2011 rated it liked it
With surprising pragmatism, this sociological study suggests that there is no way to alter the culture (nurturing, caring and traditional/smothering, judgmental and provincial, depending on your point of view) that triggers "leavers," so the best solution is to invest in the young people willing to stay (community colleges, childcare support, job training). And yes, Mr. Skjelland, I am well aware that there is a ring of hell reserved for neighbors who outsource their lawn care. ...more
Thomas Grosh IV
Oct 12, 2012 marked it as to-read
Shelves: rural
As a resident of the rapidly developing (or should I say over-developed) Lancaster County, PA, I intend to place "Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America" on my to read list and see what insights might be transferable to my context. Some thoughts on the Chronicle of Higher Education preview/promo article can be found at ...more
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