Brain Drain: The Southern Response to Ed and Business Atrophy

The challenge of brain drain has existed for years in areas around the nation.  The South is no different, although perhaps more exaggerated and slower to respond.  As I grew up in Social Circle, all I wanted to do was get the hell out of my small town and find a job, home, and surroundings that seemed to fit me more than from whence I came.  Many college-age kids and younger are the same.  This is not to say I do not deeply love Walton County (God’s country) and recognize the idyllic childhood I had there.  I grew up recognizing I was a square peg in a round hole, and I felt like an escape would provide the upward mobility I sought while not interfering with/ ruffling the feathers of those within the cultural climate I was reared.  The early recognition that I was a bit different forced me to reconcile that staying in my small town would mean a constant outsider feeling accompanied with a general uphill battle for any of my ideas and presence in certain circles.  So like a number of youth across the nation, I left and come back for family visits, events of friends who stayed behind and not much else.  I wait with baited breath for Walton County’s prosperity and commercial growth.  I sing its praises as often as I am able and I encourage as many to move there as possible, yet the struggle to be accepted as I am (more progressive, assertive, and business oriented) will always halt any dreams of returning.

But what if an entire generation chooses to leave their home towns?  What if few decide to come back?  What happens to the rural small towns they leave and how do those towns sustain themselves over time?  What happens when my generation reverses white flight and we all move back into urban areas?

You may have noticed it in your own town and among your own neighbors.  My generation has little patience for lack of amenities and we frankly do not comprehend how you work or live without reliable WiFi.  This isn’t unique to a certain area of the Southeast.  This is representative of a larger generational shift across the nation.  The opportunity to be something other than someone’s child has its own draw, and readily available choices of higher paying jobs is incredibly seductive.

In the last six months I have engaged in a leadership class called Georgia Forward.  Initially a nonprofit offshoot from Central Atlanta Progress, this organization partners with cities around Georgia to produce solutions to the local community’s challenges.  These challenges are identified by a steering committee of local officials (namely the local Chamber, from what I can tell), and are then posed in the form of questions to the group of fifty class members, a third of which are locals.

The area to which my class was partnered is Troup County.  Rich in textile history and manufacturing industry jobs, Troup County is an ideal location for Georgians to stake their claim and build their dreams.  Yet the cities of LaGrange, West Point, and Hogansville are finding it challenging to attract and retain young talent.  With little to no quality of place attributes (nightlife, retail establishments, civic organizations), I found myself both very familiar with and appallingly shocked as to why the residents could not recognize their own challenges.   The juxtaposition of those who enjoy the non-urban lifestyle that Troup County offers is in direct contrast to the preferences of those they wish to attract and retain.

This is not new, or foreign to me.  It is becoming so damn common across Georgia I often wish to beat my head against the wall in frustration.  I have seen this manifest in Macon, Augusta, Monroe, on recent visits to Americus, Albany, and certainly in my hometown of Social Circle.  There is a generational difference that contributes to the challenge, but also an ever-present racial one, and at its roots, economic.

I did not think of it as a generational problem across the nation until I recently finished the memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance.  The book was so incredibly gripping- painfully so at times.  The tome spoke such truth to the life I have known here where, albeit less violence and drugs as represented in Vance’s life, my own experience knows well the depth of family loyalty, the need for escaping one’s hometown, and the ties that forever bind us by the heartstrings to the challenges we try to leave behind.

Like Vance, I was raised to respect family and place- knowing that both sculpt you and can chew you up.  It can also be the motivating force to always reach for the next brass ring to prove self-worth, reflect well upon your family name, and serve as a contrast to the stereotypes associated with your region.  Over the years folks have repeatedly noted with surprise that I grew up on a farm, in a small town, and not a big city.  I never truly fit into my hometown, and didn’t question that, as I assumed it was my problem- no one else’s.  The strong, stubborn, independent streak with which southern children are reared told me that I had to find my own place and my own solutions.  To find the job I wanted, I had to leave, as many do.  This idea was reinforced with songs I grew up with like “Ramblin’ Man”, “Country Roads”, “Wide Open Spaces”, “Midnight Train to Georgia”, and “Dock of the Bay”.  So often, Southerners have left our homes yet tell their tensions in song.  Vance references Dwight Yokam’s “Readin’, Rightin’, Route 23” as the sojourn of Appalachia.

Vance speaks of the longer term brain drain’s effects, noting that this mobility of some versus others contributes to greater challenges of our times, not just as exemplified in small town, USA.

“The brain drain also encourages a uniquely modern form of cultural detachment. Eventually, the young people who’ve moved out marry — typically to partners with similar economic prospects. They raise children in increasingly segregated neighborhoods, giving rise to something the conservative scholar Charles Murray calls “super ZIPs.” These super ZIPs are veritable bastions of opportunity and optimism, places where divorce and joblessness are rare.”

As a state, Georgia continues to educate people who leave.  These tables from 2008, 2012, and 2014 from the National Center for Educational Statistics demonstrates that although Georgia is draining more slowly now, we have been draining for some time.  The original 2008 table was referenced in this Washington Post article referring to the problem of brain drain even back then.  While Vance writes of this challenge from his background in the Rust Belt, the Bible Belt isn’t so terribly different.

Moving isn’t an option for everyone.  So what about those left behind?

Aside from the Christian series of the same name, the status of the youth that remains behind begins a gap that tends to increase over time.  Vance references this in his grandmother’s constant admonitions to him that he is “smarter”, “better”, she tells him that by definition of his choices he will succeed.  This is a common theory among folks in the belts- be it Rust or Bible.  We are folks who believe we determine our own destiny and have the ability to manifest our own success.  Yet if you are constantly surrounded by folks that do not aim high, do not know of greater horizons, can you be expected to rise above?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  If you know of no other system than racial bias and have no representation of minority power in your circles, how distant does success appear to you?

In turn, you have the other more ready option of escape- addiction.  In more of these communities across the nation, the meth and opioid epidemics have spread like wild fire.  Alcoholism runs rampant, and a strong faith affiliation calls a moral judgement and shame to hold more bearing over people’s lives than the grace and mercy I believe God actively bestows.  The shame associated with the shortcomings of individuals’ lives is overpowering when you do not have any ability to see others who have risen above their circumstances.

Vance advocates personal responsibility of these communities more than policy will solve their challenges, and I agree.  My parents were strong advocates of autonomy and a good work ethic. I chuckled at Vance’s story of over-work in grad school because I had experienced the same thing!  I had been hospitalized in college and in grad school I had a partner who threatened an end to our relationship due to my overburdened schedule.  I knew this story of over achievement personally!

If you want something to change, then you always must begin with yourself.  My generation has less of an understanding of divisions of race and gender identity.  We also have less tolerance of misogyny and we seem to embrace a more inclusive fluidity of gender.  I tend to think this is because we are more connected to alternate representations of success and cultures.  We see more and recognize there are choices, albeit perhaps not immediately around us.  We don’t have patience for “the way things have always been done” if it no longer serves the greater good, but we also admire traditions and ritual in our faith practices, more than buildings and denominations.  We conduct most of our lives online and via our phones, which forces us to recognize that when something is made by hand, it should cost more.  I personally try not to ignore the sordid history of oppression in the South, but more importantly, I try to use the privilege I’ve been given to make things better by who is included at my tables, who I purchase things from, and how and when I use my voice.  The way we treat, invite, and show hospitality to one another does not require lawmaking.  So too, the leaders we celebrate illustrate who we value in our communities.  When you choose not to celebrate women, people of color, and when your local drug store offers registry items for Michelle and Steve vs. Mike and Steve, we take notice.  We won’t say anything, because our mammas brought us up better.  We will simply leave.

However, some reasonable policy changes certainly wouldn’t hurt either and might cultivate a faster progress.

Georgia legislators have already considered municipal broadband as a means for bringing jobs and encouraging the tech sector to grow in areas outside of Atlanta.  It is beyond my comprehension why we continue to battle for the bottom in tax credits for the film industry when we already have a booming Innovation Crescent that only needs to be replicated in other parts of the state.  So too, have certain communities like LaGrange created pipeline schools like their Thinc Academy, which places students on tracks to employment in fields where jobs are abundant and employers are waiting.  Troup County’s major focus is advanced manufacturing, but this is a slight misnomer.  The jobs they have difficulty maintaining talent in are in Research and Development, not on an assembly line.  I’ve yet to understand why more Georgia schools don’t offer coding a part of their curriculum.  “Wired” tells us this is the next blue collar boom.  Government should never be reactive, yet Georgia’s lack of responsiveness to changing trends in jobs and education has allowed these two sectors to atrophy.

Georgians could also be questioning our systems.  Why does Georgia continue to lag in breweries in comparison to North Carolina?  Clearly we have the science minded folks and the consumers.  And the brewery industry generates TONS of tax dollars, thanks to our sin taxes.  Breweries also do not require the typical per capita income that big box stores and chains require to move into a smaller area.    So too, as the nation’s employment moves away from coal and toward advanced energy, why do our Public Service Commissioners and legislators continue to suppress the solar industry here?  The switch from coal to advanced energy isn’t slowing down, rather it is increasing worldwide.

For the last decade or so Georgia has focused its economic development resources on attracting businesses, rather than undergirding and growing smaller businesses here into medium and larger businesses over time.  This stance makes a girl question why she should stay here and hang her shingle in Georgia?  While this is a faster answer to the question of jobs for Georgians, this creates a race to the bottom competition among states- each offering their own incentives if big business relocates within its boundaries.  Growing businesses takes longer, but it shows the business owner they are valued in the state and community and in turn, these business owners tend to give back more in the communities in which they grow, which fosters hometown pride and a desire to stay.

It is my hope that communities across the South will work to take bolder actions in the areas of education, job creation, and systemic process.  Our system of taxation is rife with exemptions.  Our education system hamstringed to the extent with regulations that teachers are required to serve more as babysitters than individuals that call our children to think critically about the world around them.  Our systems no longer enable growth, but push paper and generate revenue for the perpetuation of more of the same.  Our lawmakers have chosen status quo, fearing failure more than aspiring to visionary leadership that constantly asks, “why not?”  In effect, the loss of muscle toward bold action in education and jobs across the nation, we are watching our systems not only atrophy but now contribute to the larger brain drain from our rural communities.  While this elegy was written for hillbillies, I would wager the dead knell rings just as true for any small town Southerner who find their wardrobe to contain more work boots than seersucker.

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