‘Hollowing Out The Middle’ A Vivid Description Of My Hometown

“It is dangerous and misguided to fund and operate rural high schools with the primary goal of getting the academically oriented student to college and assuming that the non-college bound will somehow get a job on their own.” — Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America

“…thank goodness for us Walmart came to town when the economy was down and sales tax (revenue) continues on the rise,” Preble County Commissioner during the recent State of the County address.

In Preble County, 50 percent of the county’s revenue comes from sales tax, another 22 percent comes from property tax, the commissioners recently told those in attendance for the annual State of the County address. This was apparently presented without cause for alarm even though economists have argued for years that both taxes unfairly target the poor and underemployed.

It is these antiquated beliefs that Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America by Patrick J. Carr and  Maria J. Kefalas explores. Published in 2009, the book is the result of a married couple moving to a small Iowa rural community and interviewing 100s of residents as they sought to understand the demise of the Heartland’s dying small towns.

Four Types Of Students

Even though the book is a ‘scholarly study’ it’s an enjoyable read because of the way the authors tell the story. They do this by segmenting the story into the following types of students at the local high school: Achievers, Stayers, Seekers and Returners. They conclude the book with a “What can be done to save small towns’ section.

As I read the book, their types rang true locally, in large part, because of my daughter’s recent high school graduation. So my memories are fresh concerning her experience. One problem small towns have created for themselves is their approach to education, which like the quote above points out, is bias.

In Eaton, just like in the Iowa study, there is an effort to educate the ‘best and brightest’ along a career path which includes college with an understanding that these students will leave the region — contributing to our brain drain. Conversely, there is also a drive to let those who remain in the community fend for themselves.

A Stayer in the book talks about his high school experience — one too typical in rural communities. According to the man, a teacher advised him to quit — and he did. Years later he reflected on that moment and said that his mother,

“didn’t try to keep me in school, and my dad was kind of a bit [concerned], but he didn’t really say much. I mean, nobody really tried very hard to keep me in school…”

This can leave a region, like Preble County, with an under-educated workforce, one that easier to manipulate, and cheaper to employ, but a workforce that also makes it difficult to attract higher-skilled positions to the region.

Besides the four student types heavily detailed in the book, the authors also look at disturbing trends that exist in rural areas. Here are a few:

  • A disproportional amount of military personnel are culled from rural regions. As the study points out, though, this is not due to a abnormally high level of patriotism, but rather many join the military based on economic need.
  • Drug use is rampant in rural towns as drug cartels target them as easy markets.
  • The lack of in-migration has intellectually and economically hampered rural regions.
  • Low educational levels have reduced the ability of the regions to attract the creative class, and with it, higher-skilled and higher-paying jobs.

The book, which highlights the mindsets destroying small towns, is a strong indictment against the status quo. It ends with a very compelling quote,

Why let small-town America die when, with a plan and a vision, it could be reborn and once again vital?

Rating 5 out of 5. The book offers plenty of ‘food for thought’ for individuals wishing to understand why small towns are dying. For community leaders wishing to reverse the trend, the book offers suggestions for revitalizing the towns.


Afterthought

Ohio has been one of the hardest hit states post-Great Recession, and locally our over-reliance on sales tax revenue is tenuous at best since it puts our destiny in the control of a state economy. But, one of the most interesting aspects, for me, concerning the State of the County address was learning the county has about $26 million (roughly two-year’s worth of expenditures) in reserves. This buildup occurred during the national economy recovery which began under Obama in 2010.

A wise investment, of 5-10 percent of that fund, would be to invest it in the people of Preble County. Instead, our board of commissioners tends to let the state dictate what projects we pursue. A recent example of this is the ‘no-brainer’ decision to build a $1.3 million structure on the county’s fairgrounds. Like extreme couponers who cannot resist hording ‘free’ toilet paper and toothpaste, the commissioners could not resist the ‘free’ $400,000 (an Ohio grant) that will cost us of $900,000 (to finish the building). The building benefits a minority of the county’s citizens and Preble County has significantly more pressing needs.

Categories: 8th congressional district, Books I have read, My America

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