American Brain Drain: Background information when reading Hillbilly Elegy

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Hillbilly Elegy

A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance X
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2016, 272 pages
    May 2018, 288 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book

American Brain Drain

This article relates to Hillbilly Elegy

Print Review

"Brain Drain," aka "Human Capital Flight" refers to the exodus of educated, professional adults from locations that fail to provide them with the means of achieving success and fulfillment. As a consequence, the communities these individuals leave behind often suffer economic and cultural stagnation. The phrase's origin lies in the emigration of scientists and other intellectuals to America after World War II seeking better employment opportunities. Brain drain is of particular concern in many Rust Belt cities and communities where manufacturing plants have cut back production or shut down entirely, causing the areas' ambitious youth to flee for greener pastures.

J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, notes his own migration from Middletown, Ohio to the state's capital to get his undergraduate degree at Ohio State University, and then onto Yale University for law school. After a rather severe downturn in the 1990s and 2000s, however, things are beginning to look up for some Rust Belt cities suffering from brain drain.

A 2003 report by the U.S. Census Bureau indicated that Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland, and Toledo were among the cities hemorrhaging young, educated individuals. However, a 2015 survey by the Manhattan Institute suggests a turnaround, showing an increase in college degree-holding adults between 2000-2013 in many key Rust Belt cities, including a 37% increase in Pittsburgh, a 23% increase in Cleveland, and 16% increase in Toledo.

The Scarab Lunar Rover developed at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute Part of the increase is attributed to generational advancements, people are simply more likely to hold a college degree today than they were 20 years ago. However, these cities have also been actively attempting to spur progress by enhancing the technology programs in their educational institutions and improving science and medical facilities. The Cleveland Clinic, the robotics program at Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Pittsburgh's computer science program have been particularly successful. There has also been a small resurgence in manufacturing jobs in these areas due to higher wages overseas. These are all excellent incentives for attracting students and educated professionals. Experts in Buffalo cite cheaper rents and better opportunities for small businesses as key elements in attracting educated millennials.

For small towns like Middletown, Ohio however, without flashy colleges and universities or state-of-the-art medical facilities, the solution is elusive. Some areas are looking to counteract the effects of brain drain with improved community college programs, particularly those focusing on sustainable energy and organic farming, both rapidly growing fields. A South Dakota school district launched a program involving beautification projects and internships with local businesses to facilitate attachment and appreciation for the community in the local youth. It remains to be seen how successful these solutions will be.

Picture of Scarab Lunar Rover from NASA/ Carla Cioffi

Filed under Society and Politics

Article by Lisa Butts

This "beyond the book article" relates to Hillbilly Elegy. It originally ran in March 2017 and has been updated for the May 2018 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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