"What surprised us most was that adults in the community were playing a pivotal part in the town’s decline by pushing the best and brightest young people to leave, and by underinvesting in those who chose to stay, even though it was the latter that were the towns’ best chance for a future."
Civic and business leaders in the places most affected by hollowing out will tell anyone willing to listen how it is their young people, not hogs, steel, beef, corn, or soybeans, that have become their most valuable export commodity. Richard Russo, the Pulitzer Prize-winning observer of small town life, believes that any story of small-town America is, at its core, the story of the people who stay and the ones who go. Yet, what is different at this moment is how, in a postindustrial economy that places such a high premium on education and credentials, the flight of so many young people is transforming rural communities throughout the nation into impoverished ghost towns. A new birth simply cannot replace the loss that results every time a college-educated twentysomething on the verge of becoming a worker, taxpayer, homeowner, or parent leaves. And as more manufacturing jobs disappear every day, the rural crisis that was a slow-acting wasting disease over the past two decades has evolved into a metastasized cancer.
Why does hollowing out matter? Surely there have always been regional winners and losers. Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class celebrates how modern-day boomtowns prospered when the young and the educated flocked to cities like Austin and Chicago in search of good jobs, culture, diversity, and tolerance during the 1990s. But the incipient decline of the Rust and Corn Belts illustrates the darker side of the creative-class story-the fates of the people and places left behind.
But if this is just the latest version of the boom-and-bust cycle of frontier towns, why not just let it take its course? We believe that it would be a mistake to abandon the region, because hollowing out has repercussions far beyond the boundaries of the small towns it affects. The health of the heartland is vital to the country as a whole. This is the place where most of our food comes from; it can be ground zero for the green economy and sustainable agriculture; it is the place that helps elect our presidents, and it sends more than its fair share of young men and women to fight for this country.