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Study digs into economic outcomes for rural kids

Lower-income children growing up in rural areas fare better than urban counterparts — an ASU professor looks at why

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November 03, 2023

Dylan Connor has been studying economic success at Arizona State University for at least five years.

The associate professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning has not necessarily discovered the secret to success in that time, but he has examined how growing up in poverty, in either rural or urban areas, influences future economic attainment. 

After exploring the life trajectories of millions of people across the country, his recently released study tells an interesting story about the social mobility advantage of those who come from rural areas compared with their urban counterparts.

ASU News spoke with Connor to learn more.

Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Portrait of man with short dark blonde hair

Dylan Connor

Question: Why did you embark on this study?

Answer: There are really two reasons. One is that we know that there's a crisis in the U.S. at the moment around social mobility. Kids from lower-income households are not climbing the income ladder at the same rate as they did in the past.

And so there's a bigger research agenda now, which I'm a part of, which is about trying to uncover community factors that allow kids to go on and live their best lives. 

Part of what we're engaged in is trying to understand what it is about communities that provide opportunities.

The second reason is that a puzzle has emerged, which is that there really is a rural social mobility advantage. If you compare kids growing up in lower-income households, those who grew up in rural areas seem to reach higher income levels as adults than their counterparts in urban areas.

This is a paradox that has yet to be resolved. We took the first deep dive into the issue with this study and figured out what was going on.

Q: How was the study conducted?

A: To undertake the study, we built a new database of more than 20,000 places in the U.S., looking at the adult outcomes of the people who grew up in these places from 1978 to 1983 birth cohorts.

The analysis is partly based on economic data from the tax returns of 20 million individuals growing up in those cohorts.

We looked at where these kids grew up, how much their parents were earning in the 1990s and how much they were earning as adults. With this data, we followed the kids forward in time to assess how their childhood circumstances affected their earnings around 2015, when they showed back up in the tax records in their 30s. 

We looked at whether the kids grew up in urban or rural places and made comparisons. Of course, many of them are living in different places as adults, but this data allows us to tie these kids back to their childhood locations.

Q: Given the commonly held notion that most urban areas offer more job opportunities, what did the study reveal about why rural communities are more conducive to economic success?

A: We see two sets of factors that are particularly relevant. On one hand, rural communities are often more socially integrated and less segregated than urban communities. For example, the kids of a factory worker or farmer are more likely to go to school or know the kids of a teacher or a doctor. These interactions are less likely in urban areas, and they’re important. 

However, the data revealed that the most powerful influence here is that kids from lower-income, rural families are much more likely to grow up with two parents in the household than their urban counterparts. This is a particularly important explanation for why rural boys from lower-income families achieve higher earnings than their urban counterparts. The rural advantage in income mobility appears to be largely explained by differences in family structure, specifically, having both parents in the household. 

Q: Can you expand on the parenting piece of the puzzle?

A: By having two parents in the household, there are potentially two paychecks. If one parent decides not to work, the household is still more likely to benefit by saving on child care and by having a stay-at-home parent interacting with the kids. This is particularly important for lower-income households where resources are tighter.

On top of that, kids who grow up in two-parent households are more likely to marry and live in a two-parent household when they are adults. This means they are more likely to have those extra resources in their own households later on. The increased probability of living in a two-parent household explains about a third of the income effect for men and half of the effect for women.

The last set of explanations are really about the non-income effects of two-parent households on children. This is harder to observe in data, but we know from a lot of focused research that kids — boys in particular — do not fare as well on a range of social, health and emotional outcomes when they grow up in economically insecure households with one parent.

Q: Surprisingly, the study revealed that girls growing up in two-parent households in rural areas were not as likely to experience the success that the boys did. Why not?

A: We see a strong gender difference in personal incomes for rural kids. While rural boys from lower-income households have higher personal incomes as adults than their urban peers, the opposite is true for rural girls. They go on to achieve lower personal incomes, on average, than urban girls from lower-income backgrounds.

And so why is that the case? Well, when we dig into the data, we see that girls from rural backgrounds are significantly more likely to get married and have children earlier. These more traditional gender roles prevail in rural communities and are more likely to curtail the personal income attainment of the girls and women growing up in these places, compared to their counterparts in urban areas. It seems like the rural advantage is principally driven by the personal income attainment of boys, while the girls are more likely to experience a rural disadvantage.

Q: How can the findings from this study be applied?

A: Well, we’re making two contributions here. The first is that in academia and in the media, there is, what we call, a strong big-city bias. It has almost become an assumption that big cities are the places we want to be. And there's almost a little bit of a superiority feel to those assumptions.

We’re showing some of the benefits to a rural upbringing. Our analysis tells a much-needed positive story for rural places. 

The other piece is this: If we want to restore the reputation of the U.S. as the land of opportunity, there’s a lot we can do. In Arizona, there are organizations like First Things First that do incredible work for communities and households, running interventions and programs to support kids growing up in vulnerable circumstances or in families that need assistance.

Our study points to the need to support kids in these households and do what we can to help them achieve their aspirations and to live their best lives.

Top photo courtesy Pexels

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