WHITING, Iowa -- The cafe was selling hot biscuits and coffee for $1.50, but most of the red vinyl seats were empty, as they often are. Bert McCandless, 73, glanced around glumly.
''This place used to be full. Now look at it," he said. ''Iowa's losing people like crazy." With a grumble he added: ''What . . . is there to keep them here?"
That's a question state legislators are trying very hard to answer.
Iowa suffers from an alarming brain drain: It loses more of its young, single, well-educated adults than any other state except North Dakota. In search of bigger cities, hipper crowds, and warmer weather, young Iowans flee in such number that demographers predict the state will face a drastic labor shortage within two decades.
Desperate to keep the state's future from bolting, the Republican leadership in the state Senate is proposing trying to entice young adults to stick around by abolishing the state income tax for everyone under 30.
About a dozen states exempt low-income elderly from filing tax returns. New Mexico offers a free ride to anyone who makes it to 100. But Iowa would be the first state in the nation to stop taxing young adults.
The proposal, introduced two weeks ago, would save the average person in his or her 20s about $12 a week -- and cost the state treasury an estimated $200 million a year. The bill's sponsors say that is money well spent, if it persuades a few thousand more bright, ambitious young Iowans to stick around.
''The ones like my 16-year-old daughter who say, 'I'm getting out of here as soon as I can' . . . well, there's probably nothing we can do to keep them," conceded Senator Jeff Lamberti, a Republican legislative leader. ''But we really have to get serious about this problem."
It is a problem that has been building for decades, not only in Iowa, but across the Great Plains. And civic leaders have proposed all manner of responses.
At least eight small towns in Kansas are offering free land to any family willing to try living on the prairie, where the winters can be fierce and the cultural attractions sparse -- but where a brand-new four-bedroom house costs less than $150,000 and a teacher who has 18 students in a class is considered overworked.
The rugged counties of northwest North Dakota are trying reverse psychology. Locals have set up a website that describes the frozen frontier as too brutal for many suburbanites to handle. ''Do you have what it takes to be a 21st-century pioneer? Most don't," the site taunts. It goes on to say residents are looking to recruit 5,000 hardy new neighbors.
Targeting the rabid fans of Cornhusker football, former Nebraska governor Mike Johanns, a Republican who is now agriculture secretary, held a job fair last year for alumni living in Denver, wooing them with a video of young professionals who had happily traded the big city for the wide-open prairie.
Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa, a Democrat, has tried something similar: holding cocktail parties for former Iowans living in Chicago, New York, and Washington. He boasts of recruiting more than 1,000 people back to the state in four years of aggressive promotion.
But that is not enough to offset Iowa's losses.
In the five years leading up to the 2000 Census, Iowa lost close to 12,000 young, single, college-educated residents. By comparison, Colorado reported a net gain of nearly 18,000. Iowa is third behind Florida and Pennsylvania in the proportion of the population over 65.
Lamberti, the state senator, rattles off other statistics as well: Half of those who graduate from the state's public universities leave Iowa as soon as they get their diplomas.
In Whiting, a town of 707 in far western Iowa, locals can see the demographics shifting as school enrollment shrinks and church congregations gray. Desperate to attract more young families, the community organized an open house last year to promote its virtues. The open house was a hit: Several families moved to town, boosting the elementary and secondary school enrollment to 212. But Dave Storm, president of the school board, acknowledges that rural Iowa will never be a youth magnet. ''A town this size is limited in what it can offer," he said.
He is not at all sure that the under-30 tax cut would help. And many here echo his doubts.
The way they look at it, Iowa needs to offer a good deal more than an extra $600 a year to be attractive to young families. Forty-three percent of young adults in a 1999 state poll cited the lack of entertainment as their top gripe about Iowa.
But first on most locals' lists is more industry. Many in Whiting drive half an hour north to Sioux City for work. Even then, they often complain that good jobs are hard to come by in rural Iowa. ''All the tax exemptions in the world are not going to help if you don't have jobs," Whiting Mayor Nancy Brenden said.