Rural Studies and the Death of Main Street

The small towns of America’s heartland are becoming an endangered species, argue researchers Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas in Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America—a lengthy title for a slim and troubling ethnography. In a nation where urban studies and development are hot topics, Carr and Kefalas turn their attention to the rapid depopulation and economic crises facing Main Street. The family farm has all but vanished into corporate agribusiness, and the industrial jobs rural workers take instead pay poorly and have an uncertain future in the current economy. Carr and Kefalas note that some rural researchers have gone so far as to suggest that the answer to such inevitable decline—economically and ecologically—is “to return much of the Great Plains to its original state”—a Buffalo Commons.

What distresses the authors most is that the rural, Midwestern towns containing the “real Americans” politicians try to comprehend every four years have been steadily losing their best and brightest young people to more metropolitan locales over the past few decades. This exodus has caused the median age in these towns to skyrocket, caused schools to close, and created a dearth in civic leadership, economic growth, and medical facilities. As the Heartland’s “creative class” invest their human capital in cities such as Austin and Phoenix, the “regional losers—the laggard, blue-collar red states […] find themselves fighting to keep their communities and counties viable.”

Carr and Kefalas moved to a northern Iowa town to investigate this phenomenon for themselves. They discovered that students whom they aptly termed “Achievers” left not only because of unappealing employment prospects but because the town expects them to leave, attend college, and accomplish great things—despite the fact that these towns are shooting themselves in their proverbial feet. “Stayers” are towns’ underinvested in, low test scorers, those of lower-middle class status who marry right out of high school and find work locally. They enter the workforce little comprehending that they will make the same paycheck at 40 as they did at 18.

While states are scrambling to build campaigns to attract “Achievers” to return to Iowa or Kansas, Carr and Kefalas would urge small rural towns to nurture and invest in the “Stayers”—to equip and update them with technical skill sets utilizing the community college system, to emphasize computer skills, and to generally “raise the human capital of those who stay.” They also recommend that there be a “national call to move to sustainable agriculture and green energy technology” to the heartland, and that immigrants be given the opportunity to gain legal status and work in well-regulated industries.

But why should Americans care about the future of small towns in our heartland? After all, in a capitalist system, are there not going to be winners and losers? Carr and Kefalas argue that it isn’t that simple: the country, they claim, couldn’t properly function without these small Midwestern towns. Our food and other natural resources come from these areas, they say. Do we really want to see the continued propagation of cheap and unhealthy food grown by large corporations? The Midwest is ground zero for sustainable agriculture, as well as green energy. It is one of the best places to develop wind and solar power. The region is also historically central to the health of the nation, they argue, and America is best when unified. We should care about all parts of our country; as we care for struggling urban areas, we should also invest in struggling rural ones. ‘