Carr and Kefalas's study of Ellis (er, Sumner), Iowa was part of a larger research project: The Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, conceived by Frank Furstenburg and funded by the MacArthur Foundation. The initial project design called for interviews of young adults from metropolitan areas in the vicinity of New York, San Diego, Detroit, and Minneapolis/St. Paul, in an attempt to discover how they make decisions on education and occupations as well as where they're going to live, work, and raise families. Late in the design of the project, Furstenburg felt that young adults from non-metropolitan areas should also be examined; after all, they do account for about 20% of the population.
Carr and Kefalas also identify the Stayers: those who think that Ellis is "good enough," and don't want to leave their homes and families. They see Ellis as a great place to raise children, but self limit their own economic and social potential by not acquiring the education necessary to be employable beyond factory and service sector jobs. Their narrow skill set leaves them one plant closure from economic and social disaster.
Next, are the Seekers--As Carr and Kefalas put it, "What the Seekers know, with the utmost certainty, is that they do not want to stay in the countryside all of their lives." Like achievers, the Seekers know that they want to get the hell out of Ellis. However, like the Stayers, Seekers have missed out on the educational opportunities that would make life on the outside viable.
Next in the Carr/Kefalas taxonomy are the Returners: The Returners may be either Achievers or Seekers, but in either case, they are willing to forgo greater career opportunities elsewhere in exchange for the familiar comfort of living in their home town.
What difference does the rural brain-drain make? Why should we care? According to Carr and Kefalas's interviews with rural Iowans concerned about the decline of rural America, and seeking solutions, we should care because much of the nation's natural resources and the world's food comes from this region and this alone should be reason to devote resources to reversing the trend towards depopulation.
Carr and Kefalas's research also yields claims by locals that alternative forms of energy and food production are waves of the future and that Midwestern farms are "ground zero" for rolling out the green economy and sustainable agriculture. Once again, a non-sequitur. Alternative forms of energy, especially biomass based, are not now, nor will they be in the future, economically viable solutions to either national energy needs or to rural depopulation. And, even if they were viable, neither solution will be based on masses of human labor. The economics of gathering biomass and transforming it into usable energy are problematic.
Carr and Kefalas also claim that losing the Midwest would be as problematic as losing the South to rebellion in the mid 19th Century. As we approach the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, counter factual historians are not certain that the war was worth fighting. Before we sink vast treasure into saving those who will not help themselves, let's think it over.
Carr and Kefalas do not share my indifference towards the end of the rural American culture. What they perceive as an oncoming disaster, I see as evolution. However, they see a problem and they want to fix it. Their solution? Small towns should take steps to foster the return of the creative class: Engineers, business owners, scientists, designers, artists, and, no doubt, sociologists. Making the Ellis's of the Midwest attractive to the creative class is easier said that done. Bike trails, fancy libraries, parks, latte bars, and DSL (seriously? Why not 4G?) are a start, but hardly enough to attract the critical mass of creative people necessary to sustain Ellis or any other small town.
Carr and Kefalas note that rural America is suffering from the effects of globalization. In order to survive, small towns must take steps to compete on a global scale. Obvious steps include getting rural America high speed Internet access and changing educational practices to exploit the possibilities of moving information long distances at high speed. In other words, human capital investment into the Stayers and Returners, namely bio-tech and digital, is the best bet for long term viability.