ESSAYS FROM WEST OF 98: BRAIN DRAINS AND GAINS

By James M. Decker 

Last week, I introduced the concept of the “homecomer”—author Wendell Berry’s term for someone who left rural America seeking a “better” life but then found that the real better life was back home all along. This week, I want to share why it matters, and who those homecomers might be, in each of our towns.

In the past, I’ve talked about rural “brain drain,” when the bright young minds of a rural community leave to pursue work or educational opportunities and don’t return. Brain drain is unquestionably a challenge for all of our rural communities. Brain drain is viewed as a foregone conclusion by many observers, both inside and outside rural America. These observers have concluded that, in 2019, our best and brightest young people simply want to live in vibrant urban centers, near other similar-minded young people and with easy access to amenities.

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But is it actually a foregone conclusion? Research suggests that it’s not. A study published in 2016 in the American Educational Research Journal says it is not. This study found that high-achieving high school students are no more likely to leave a rural community than other students. And in fact, when high achieving students do lease, they actually are more likely to return. The study found that a desire to return home is not connected achievements; rather, the desire to return home is more tied to a student’s feeling of community engagement and connection.

Simply put, some students want to leave and some do not, but it is not a function of education or high achievement. If the student loves and feels more connected to their community, they’re more likely to want to stay or return.

Moreover, a student’s perception of local economic conditions and future career opportunities contributes to their desire to leave the community or stay/return. Note that I said “perception.” Perception is often reality. If there are good career opportunities and young people don’t realize it, then the facts don’t matter. Communities need to provide good opportunities for their students AND make the students aware of what is possible in the community for their future.

And here’s the thing: students might leave due to a lacking connection to the community or lacking career opportunities, but they don’t necessarily WANT to. Last week, I referenced the results of a Gallup poll that showed that more Americans would prefer to live in a rural area than any other option. Twice as many Americans want to live in a rural area as actually currently live in rural areas.

Conventional wisdom says people don’t want to live in rural America, especially not young people. Polling and research indicates the exact opposite. People want to live in rural America if they can, but they need economic opportunities to either keep them in rural America or to draw them back. In reality, that corresponds with American history. Our ancestors emigrated to America and then moved out to the frontier and into the cities at various times, all as a result of economic opportunity.

So how do we reverse that brain drain? How do we create “brain gain” by attracting our homecomers? First and foremost, opportunity matters. Our people have never stayed in a place for no reason—not the old world, the cities “back east,” the frontier, our modern cities, or rural America. Our young people will not stay and they won’t come back “just because.”

We have to provide our homecomers with economic opportunity and quality of life that matters to them. Just because certain amenities (or a lack thereof) were good enough for our parents or our grandparents, we shouldn’t expect our young people to just “deal with it.” Attracting people to your town is a sales pitch, not a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

More on that sales pitch is coming later, but in the meantime, ask yourself a hard, honest question: is your community currently a desirable place for young people to live? If not, how can you make it so?

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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.

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