Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Rural Return

"Hollowing Out the Middle" is a book about rural brain drain in the United States. However, a good number of those who leave do return. Not all "returners" are the same. In fact, the authors claim that only a fraction would qualify as "high-flyers". This demographic is part of the coveted creative class and some do leave big city for the comforts of home, even small town Iowa.

I'm not sure if this assertion would hold up to scrutiny. I've learned that our population expectations are often out of whack with the realities of migration. I'm seeing more and more stories about the return of natives to forsaken regions. The backward talent flow isn't putting an appreciable dent in the decline, at least for now. The reason for this may be a lack of imagination or inability to leverage the brain gain:

Last week I had an interesting conversation on Twitter concerning a ReImagine Rural blog post I wrote titled “Should we banish ‘brain drain’ from our vocabulary.” The post focuses on Ben Winchester’s research suggesting much of rural Minnesota is experiencing an in migration of college educated adults age 30-45.

The Twitter conversation emerged when Joe O’Sullivan (@jaosullivanx) a reporter from Watertown, SD, sent me a tweet saying, “I see people here who grew up rural return 15 years later w/ degrees. Positive development, but can you bank on it?”

My response was, “B Winchester tells us that there are more who move back than we realize. But that’s also why we need (to) intentionally work at it.” Later I sent him a second tweet with a link to a report that highlights the importance of rural communities being intentional about developing people attraction strategies.

Joe responded writing, “I like. But it seems that communities have either a lack of vision, or resources, or both. How do you get around that?”

Good question. We haven't nearly exhausted the possibilities of attraction. That's not to dismiss the call of investing in the human capital left behind. (The main policy conclusion in "Hollowing Out the Middle") My gripe is that the recommendation is more about social justice than plugging the brain drain. Going after more high-flyers doesn't have to come at the expense of the rest of the community.

Latent in this discussion is class warfare. The world described in "Hollowing Out the Middle" is deeply segregated along those lines. This is the rural America we need to preserve? The entrenched parochial attitudes drive out many high-flyers while all but ignoring the lower classes stuck in place. Whatever the solution, small towns will change. They must change.

Throughout the book, I felt as if I was being beat over the head with an anthropological directive. We mustn't pollute the cultural ecosystem, just observe it. Exogenous forces are something to be abhorred. Yet the ultimate blame for the brain drain is put at the feet of the community. I doubt we can simply cherry pick what we want to save and what should be thrown away. The economic structure, with its inherent faults, exists at all scales. (Dusting off Neo-Marxist theory)

To think that "stayers" won't bolt for the bright lights after receiving the same educational opportunities as "achievers" is naive. Yes, it is the right thing to do. But the initiative won't save rural America unless these communities figure out how to derive a dividend from that investment in their young people.

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