Blog for Rural America

The Center for Rural Affairs, a private, non-profit organization, is working to strengthen small businesses, family farms and ranches, and rural communities. Permission to reprint items from this web log is hereby granted, on the condition that clear credit is given to the original source of the material. If the blog provides information for a story, please let us know by sending an email to

Friday, August 12, 2005

The Brain Belt

This post generated some interesting discussion. So, I thought I would bring it back for further consideration. Although I encourage whatever comments people have, I would be interested in what people think are the most important assets that rural communities have to offer that could be part of developing a Heartland "Brain Belt" strategy. John Crabtree,

(Originally posted July 25, 2005) - from the desk of John Crabtree, Center for Rural Affairs,

The Brain Belt

Much has been made of the so-called “brain drain” in rural America. Young people are leaving our rural communities and taking the economic promise they carry with them, that has been the conventional wisdom.

But perhaps something else is happening.

Joel Kotkin, Irvine Fellow at the New America Foundation wrote recently in the journal American Enterprise, “What used to be known as the nation’s Grain Belt is increasingly becoming our Brain Belt…more and more, the country’s competitive edge in practical economics this century will come from previously unlikely places like Sioux Falls, Des Moines and Fargo…Remarkable young people more often stay, or…come home again. And other Americans…are heading into these new comfortable economic hotbeds, bringing with them fresh energies and ideas, and an appreciation for the wholesome values that people in these places hold dear.”

Sixty percent of Nebraska high school students take upper level math courses, more than any other state and 14% above the national average. In North Dakota, 60% of young people are enrolled in college by age 19. And the highest high school graduation rates in the nation are in Iowa, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Nebraska, respectively. Clearly, we have remarkable schools and remarkable young people.

If Kotkin’s premise is also sound, and he presents a strong case, then we must examine ways that rural communities can also find a niche within this trend. Can innovative workers and entrepreneurs provide the kind of high-wage information technology services – programming, systems analysis, etc. – that currently are often sent “offshore”? Can rural entrepreneurs collaborate to provide products and services that one alone might not have the capacity to produce? Can we work together to tackle the challenges rural entrepreneurs face? Can we create a “Heartland Strategy” that includes rural communities? We think so.

John Crabtree,
402-687-2103 ext. 1010
Center for Rural Affairs
Values. Worth. Action.


  • At 5:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    "I don't know if I am the only one who thinks this or not, but its about damned time there is a positive story about this part of the country. It seems like there are so many stories about our region that just concentrates on how we are losing so many young people, businesses closing, and farmers are going broke which all of those things are really happening, but finally there is a story out there that has some hope!"

  • At 3:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    It is about time that people started to recognize that the folks who live in the Midwest have a lot to offer - hard work, good education, positive attitude. Too many of our states just promote the fact that our people will work for low wages. We should have more pride than that. we have the smartest kids anywhere, the best schools, decent wages and decent economic opportunity for smart, hard working people is not too much to ask.

  • At 5:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    The Midwest really ought to be a hotbed for entrepreneurs. We have a strong work ethic, low crime rate, and the cost of living is substantially lower then the rest of the country, we have excellent schools and as the article confirms, our students are the best in the country!

  • At 6:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    In the past it seems like there has always been a misconception that the Midwest is always behind the times, that we are unintelligent, and that there are no opportunities in the area, but I think that with the help of the internet and with blogs like yours, this proves differently and that the Midwest is in fact the exact opposite and that people are finding out that the Midwest is the perfect place to raise their families, run a business and most importantly receive an education! Keep up the good work!

  • At 11:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I am a teacher in the northern Virgina area (metro DC). I've been exploring opportunities in the Midwest. It is appearing more and more attractive. I am completing my masters degree in teaching this year, and I hope to move to the midwest. As a teacher making about 50K in the DC, I cannot afford even the cheapest condo or townhouse -- why live there?

  • At 6:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Rural opportunities are increasing dramatically due to telecommuting and to the Internet. Not only are computer jobs open to remote workers but also marketing, consulting and a wide variety of administrative functions.

    We applaud the individual initiatives that allow participants to thrive economically in a rural environment.

    However, communications are not the only area of advancement locally. Rural opportunities include a wide variety of enterprises conducted individually and in groups such as farming, manufacturing, technology advancements, education, and many others.

    C. Van Milligen
    Kentucky Enrichment Inc
    Rural Innovations Inc
    GO, Inc

  • At 8:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    It is great to hear a positive story and a bit of confidence about our own backyard. The misconception of the midwest being unintelligent or even 'backwards' travels well beyond the US borders as I have heard it several times while travelling and working in Europe. Organizations like this need to be vigilant about feeding the media positive stories like this; and for us as ordinary citizens to stand tall and offer the other side of the coin (via letters to the editor, etc) when negatives things are said about the Midwest.

  • At 1:21 AM, Blogger Center for Rural Affairs said…

    Editor's note - I decided to repost this blog entry to encourage further discussion. There were very interesting comments posted here and I received a number of other comments directly. Also, this post found its way to some other media outlets, so I think there is something here that folks find interesting to think about. Keep the conversation going and thank you for all that has already been said. john

    John Crabtree
    402-687-2103 ext 1010
    Center for Rural Affairs
    Values. Worth. Action.

  • At 7:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I heard on the radio a story from the Center for Rural Affairs talking about the new Homestead Act and matching people's savings in rural counties for them to use for buying a home or starting a business. I have a daughter who works hard and studies hard and I think she would like to come back to our little town or somewhere like it. Would these homestead accounts be something that a young person could use to return to rural Minnesota?

  • At 10:53 PM, Blogger Center for Rural Affairs said…

    You bet, the New Homestead Act's Individual Homestead Accounts could help your daughter and many other young people, stay in or return to rural areas that have suffered from depopulation over the last 20 years.

    Any bona fide resident of a qualifying county would be allowed to create an IHA. IHA's are savings accounts that allow tax-free withdrawls for certain purposes - such as unreimbursed medical expenses, first-time home purchases, business development costs and higher education costs.

    Additionally, households with less than $100,000 in household income could potentially qualify for IHA matching funds, providing even greater economic impact of an individual's savings.

    A young person living in a qualifying county and with a qualifying household income could, I am sure, find real benefit in utilizing the IHA savings and matching fund provisions to get an even better start in life in many rural communities. Another potential tool for building the Brain Belt concept.

    One important note - the New Homestead Act has been proposed, introduced in Congress. It is not yet the law of the land and still awaits Congressional action.

    John Crabtree,
    Center for Rural Affairs
    Values. Worth. Action.

  • At 3:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I grew up in a rural area in western Pa, left for employment and then returned in my early 40s to help my aging parents. I'm an information security engineer and working from a farm in eastern Ohio. It has been challenging to try to keep an income going from this area.

    Originally I was employed and even though there is need for my services in this area, my employer's were stuck on NYC and metro area rates... they wouldn't listen that this area is a completely different economic area and were too stuck on getting major metro rates, even though it would have been very cheap for me to work locally... so my life was getting on a plane on Monday and comming home on Friday. This doesn't work when trying to help aging parents. Eventually I was no longer employed (sort of a mutual agreement thing) and I became an independent consultant.

    Communications infrastructure in nearly non-existant. I had to raise a complaint to the state UCC to get my data (phone) line brought up to reasonable quality. Their reasoning was that it was a second phone line. There is no cable and all attempts to get broadband through satellite have gone into a black hole. Advanced cell phone communications are also non-existant. The lack of broadband access SEVERELY hinders my work.

    The electric infrastrucure is also not reliable. Any significant weather causes land slides that invariabley take out the electric and phone.

    These basic infrastructure services that are available and reliable in urban areas are critical to telecommuters and information workers. Rural areas need a way to make utility companies responsible to service ALL customers. I pay the same rate as towner's and I pay taxes that subsidize these infrastructures, but because I have a farm, I somehow don't rate equal service or have to pay more for it? If I'm not taxed less for being in a rural area, then I shouldn't be charged more to get equal service.

    Finally.. it was mentioned that rural workers may be an alternative to off-shore workers. I think this is a bad approach. Off-shore workers are being used because they are in-expensive. I have a Master's Degree and serveral certifications for my field. I am as qualified as any in my field. I do not think that my zip code should affect my earning power. As an independent consultant, my rates are set according the the client and the work to be performed. If you promote rural telecommuters as 'cheap labor' you may actually cause people to NOT want to move to rural areas because it will have a negative impact on their earning power.

    In my opinion, rural areas should be courting those that can bring higher wages to their area. It improves the tax base and brings more 'disposable income' into the area. What I think would attract those types are (A) a solid utility infrastructure and (B) fairly direct access to metro areas and air ports.

    Things that would also attract me were I to 'do it again'
    - strong land management to avoid urban sprawl. I like counties that have limited (or banned) trailers and forced high density housing (like townhomes) to be co-located with shopping areas.
    - an ability to permanently protect property from sub-division. I'm building a 90 acre farm (in my spare time) and have not been able to find a program that will protect it from sub-division in the future. Several of my neighbors feel the same.
    - a minor tax reduction for telecommuters. I pay more taxes than the average person in my area, yet I use the infrastructure services much less because I don't leave the farm nearly as much as my employed neighbors. Even a token 0.1% reduction would be great.


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