Book by Patrick J. Carr, Maria J. Kefalas
Review by Joan Smothers
College of Business Administration
University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, Iowa

Rural towns are losing population at a significant rate. Hollowing Out the Middle, does an excellent job identifying tangible reasons for this phenomenon and how to address them. In the start of the new millennium two sociologists, the husband and wife team of Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas, moved to a rural Iowa town to study the experiences of youth coming of age. Through their research, the authors identify the multi-tiered web of systematic events and attitudes that force our best and brightest to leave small towns, while investing nothing in those most likely to stay.

This is a quick read that engages the reader almost instantly. There is significant research that goes into the book thus the last 50 pages are devoted to acknowledgements, notes references and the index. Even with the sound research, it is conversationally written and will have every college employee looking at their students and themselves in a different light. 

After spending a year living in the small town and seven years working on the book, four types of students emerge: Achievers, Stayers, Seekers and Returners. Readers who grew up in a small town or near a small town, can identify first hand with the descriptions and stories told of the town’s people. Achievers are predestined to leave. They come from the “right side” of the town and the town invests a disproportionate about of resources in them with the expectation that they will leave their community and never come back. Stayers are more marginally educated. Their parents do not set up the expectation for them to go to college and their school teachers and coaches do not either. They are the most likely to stay in the community and have little to contribute since so little is invested or expected of them. Seekers want to leave but with no educational or financial support they realize that the military is their only way out. The authors quickly realized that these students enlist for very practical reasons not patriotic ones. Finally the authors discuss the Returners or sometime referred to as the Boomerangs. These are the students who at first glance appear to be Achievers or Seekers but are disappointed by what they find outside of their community and decide to return home. A small group of these (and the ones all communities want back) are the Highflyers. They too looked like Achievers but come home because of family reasons; but are also able to find significant employment in their profession.

The authors analyzed current and past programs implemented in rural areas and states whose goal is to retain or bring back former citizens or recruit new citizens; included is a discussion of the role of the creative class, the impact of agriculture and manufacturing industries, and immigration. Lastly, the authors outline several recommendations to reverse the trend that may soon cause the elimination of small communities.

Reading this book made me want me to buy a copy for all of my colleagues. High school teachers, parents, college and university faculty, staff, and administrators at institutions that draw students from rural areas should read this book.

Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America. (2009) Book by Patrick J. Carr, Maria J. Kefalas. Review by Joan Smothers. Ypsilanti, MI: Beacon Press. 224 pp. $26.95 ISBN # 978-0807042380
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