Book brings “Brain Drain” issue home to rural America


They’ll drive for miles and miles across the rolling prairies of South Dakota to pool their thoughts with others concerned about the future of their rural communities and to probe for solutions.

A group of South Dakota State University professors and Cooperative Extension community developers said that seems to be the effect that a series of book discussions around the state is having as rural people meet to discuss the ideas in “Hollowing out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America.” Authors Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, a husband and wife team of sociologists, wrote the book after conducting a community study in Ellis, Iowa.

Associate professor Gary Aguiar of SDSU’s Department of History and Political Science, said rural South Dakotans recognize themselves and their communities in the book. At least as of the 2000 census, Aguiar said, 52.7 percent of Americans still lived in non-metro areas — outside of metropolitan counties or counties adjacent to them.

Carr and Kefalas discuss the prospects for rural communities by classifying young people in terms of college-bound Achievers who achieve success far from their rural communities; blue-collar Stayers who remain to work agricultural or rural industrial jobs; Seekers who use means such as military enlistment as a ticket out; and Returners who eventually circle back home. Carr and Kefalas look at what rural communities are doing or not doing to meet the needs of each of those groups, suggesting that practices in the heartland push gifted young people away while under-investing in the Stayers.

Aguiar and his SDSU colleagues found the ideas in the book so compelling that they began holding a series of meetings around South Dakota recently to tap area residents’ points of view — first in the town of Howard in August, then in Brookings in October. Additional meetings are set for 7 p.m., Nov. 17, at the Sunrise Ranch in Edgemont, in far western South Dakota, and 7:30 p.m., Nov. 23, at the Gregory Public Library in central South Dakota. Yet another meeting to discuss the book has been requested by the school system in Wagner, probably in January.

Carr said the response to the book is an indication of the importance of the issue.

“The brain drain and the problems associated with it are worthy of attention. Moreover, it is by having these conversations that we can begin to strategize as to how to improve things and to do so in a way that best suits the context of each place,” he said.

Carr added that some communities, in South Dakota and elsewhere, are already grappling with the problem.

“There are many groups in South Dakota, for instance the Rural Learning Center in Howard, that have been ahead of the curve in thinking on this issue and I hope that the book and the discussions around it help them to redouble their efforts,” he said. “It is truly an honor to have people engage with our work and it makes us feel incredibly fortunate that the book has resonated with so many people.”

Aguiar said it’s appropriate that communities discuss public policy solutions to the brain drain and outmigration problems, since public policy also helped create the issues facing rural areas. States such as South Dakota were settled in response to the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave away 160 acres of land to homesteaders. The Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 increased the acreage to 320 acres in dryland farming areas, but even that increased acreage wouldn’t sustain a family as the 20th century progressed.

“In some ways the Homestead Act was an artificial mechanism to populate this area, and they didn’t do it properly,” Aguiar said. “We’re seeing the early mistakes of public policy playing out in a number of ways.”

Not all rural communities can survive. But South Dakota State faculty members — who also have an interdisciplinary Rural Persistence Research Group at work on rural policy issues — are optimistic that at least some will adapt by dealing with the brain drain and outmigration.

“There will be people who are moving back, and we need to figure out how to make it attractive for them to do so. Some communities are already working on that,” said Dave Olson, a community coach with the Horizons Project for the South Dakota Cooperative Extension Service. “It’s part of the American myth to have your own place or your space. We’ve got room to do that in South Dakota.”