Authors of a new study on social mobility found rural children born in poverty gain higher incomes as adults compared to low-income urban children. But on some measures of income attainment, girls born in low-income households don’t benefit from the same rural advantage as boys.
Factors like community trust, social capital, and the rate of two-parent households help explain more upward social mobility, or positive change in one’s economic status, among rural children born into poverty, according to a 2023 study.
“Rural places actually seem to be faring quite well relative to their counterparts in cities and larger towns,” said professor Dylan Connor, Ph.D., in a phone interview with the Daily Yonder. “People have kind of noticed this rural advantage, but haven’t really been able to explain it.”
Connor is an associate professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University and one of four authors on the social mobility study. He said the research emerged out of a need to examine why social mobility in the United States is looking increasingly worse for children born into poverty.
“The U.S. has this long history of being kind of a land of opportunity,” Connor said. “But when we look at comparisons today between the U.S. and other countries, we’re now not faring as well as we used to be.”
In response to this trend, Connor and other researchers think it’s important to look at places that are still delivering opportunity and to try to determine what characteristics of those places make them favorable.
The Advantage of a Two-Parent Household
“The conventional thing that people have said is that conditions are so bad in these rural places that kids just grow up and leave,” Connor said. But he said his research demonstrated the opposite. “Rural places actually seem quite favorable compared to urban places.”
Connor and his colleagues found that rural children in poverty achieved higher incomes as adults than urban children in poverty did. One explanation is that a greater share of rural children are born into two-parent households.
“We know that, on average, kids growing up in [two-parent households] seem to do better as adults on a whole range of outcomes,” Connor said.
That finding holds true when the researchers controlled for factors like race.
The rural advantage doesn’t just apply to the people who grew up in a rural community but moved to a city as adults. The study demonstrated that both low-income children who remained in a rural community through adulthood and those who left experienced an income advantage compared to their urban-born peers.
“The source of the rural advantage is rooted more in the childhood and adolescent contexts faced by individuals rather than the labor markets in which they ultimately work,” the study states.
White and Hispanic children experience a greater rural advantage than children born in Black households. Appalachia and parts of the rural South are also exceptions to the rural advantage. These regions generally have lower rates of two-parent households, and low-income rural children there tend to not do as well as their rural counterparts in other regions, according to Connor.
Connor and his colleagues also looked at whether factors other than family structure contribute to income mobility. They looked at marriage rates, volunteering rates, poverty, employment, and the racial composition of communities, among other characteristics. But they found that no other variable has as much power over mobility as the two-parent household effect.
With Personal Income, Girls Are at a Rural Disadvantage
Females born into poverty in rural areas had an advantage in household income over their urban counterparts compared to urban females. But with personal income – which refers to the incomes of each adult member of the household, not their combined incomes – women earned significantly less than their male peers.
“What we actually see is that the rural advantage is really being driven by the personal incomes of the man in the house,” Connor said.
The authors attribute these differences to the gender roles rural women may be more likely to face compared to their urban counterparts.
Disparities in personal income between men and women are greater in rural areas than they are in urban ones.
“Rural women are more likely to get married earlier, start having children earlier, and they’re less likely to go to college,” Connor said. “You could almost think of it as a traditional rural effect. Women actually seem to benefit from growing up in a city in terms of pursuing their own careers and so on.”