One of the key tenets of the American Dream is the opportunity for children to grow up to earn more than their parents. Although millions of Americans aspire to get ahead, there are considerable challenges—such as poverty and racial barriers—that can get in the way. For the approximately 60 million people living in rural America, a prevalence of additional obstacles like declining populations, limited job options, and the opioid epidemic make it even harder. 

To identify solutions to these unique challenges, the National 4-H Council and The Bridgespan Group collaborated to release a field report highlighting rural communities that are leading the way in social mobility. The report is based on four main sources of information: 1) interviews with experts from the public, private, and social sectors; 2) site visits to nineteen towns in ten rural counties that included focus groups with over one hundred youth and over 120 nonprofit, business, and civic leaders; 3) county level analysis of demographic, economic, and outcomes data that was used to hypothesize about upward mobility trends; and 4) discussions and focus groups with local leaders in an additional six rural counties in four states to field test initial findings.

Results from the site visits are particularly important because they offer a ground-level view of communities with particularly strong outcomes. To identify site visit locations, the report’s authors worked from data on economic opportunity in rural America gathered by economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues. First, the authors identified 133 counties that rank in the top 10 percent of all rural counties for youth economic advancement. Then, using characteristics that correlate with upward mobility (such as teen birth rates and high school graduation rates) and demographic data (to identify counties with diversity in terms of population size, adjacency to metropolitan areas, racial makeup, and predominant industries), they narrowed it down to ten counties. Specifically, they identified nineteen towns located in four regions—the Texas panhandle, southwest Minnesota, northeastern Nebraska, and western North Dakota—to visit. (Sadly, no rural areas of Ohio were visited.)

The identified towns had populations ranging from 600 to about 20,000 people. Most of the counties in which they were located had economies based on agriculture, energy, and some manufacturing, and seemed to have sidestepped the worst of the opioid epidemic. Although each town was unique, the authors observed six common factors within each that are associated with social capital. The presence and integration of all six seems to create real opportunity for young people to build better economic lives than their parents. The factors are:

  • A high expectation that youth will “opt in” and work hard to acquire the skills to build a better future; a low tolerance for opting out. Within these places, participation in community is the norm. Young people are encouraged to fill their time with a diverse set of activities, including jobs, sports, the arts, and volunteering. In Spearman, Texas, for example, 260 out of 266 students at the high school were involved in at least one afterschool activity.
  • Strong informal support systems, with neighbors helping neighbors. These communities have very few direct service nonprofits. Instead, they offer students informal support systems, such as neighbors who band together to solve challenges or informally “adopt” children facing financial and transportation barriers. Religious institutions play a crucial role in organizing activities and offering services. Communities invest significantly in communal spaces like libraries, parks, schools, and recreation centers. And they routinely celebrate youth achievement through the local paper and radio stations, as well as through events like annual banquets that honor academic achievements.
  • An early focus on career pathways. Parents and teachers expect graduates to pursue some form of post-secondary education, and there is little stigma around community or vocational colleges. In one Minnesota middle school, for example, every sixth and seventh grader has two job shadowing placements a year. Schools offer career-oriented curriculums and classes, and administrators design out-of-school activities toward career development. Students credit summer jobs as having helped them prepare for their careers.
  • A wealth of opportunities for youth to build life skills, regardless of community size. These communities are committed to providing plenty of access points for young people to get involved, and they are small enough that every young person can take on a leadership role, often in multiple activities. Quite a few use technology to offer remote learning opportunities.
  • Many potential challenges to accessing opportunities, but creative solutions for overcoming them. Communities overcome financial barriers by offering most afterschool activities at low or no cost, offering dual-credit classes to lessen the number of college semesters student must pay for, and raising money for local scholarship funds. In Minnesota, the community of Redwood Falls is working to overcome transportation barriers by testing a “Green Route” bus that travels between key community locations, such as the library, the hospital, and the community center. And in multiple locales, school systems are working together to share resources.   
  • A sense of shared fate and deep commitment to sustaining the community. Community members report banding together in the midst of shrinking populations to improve both the supply and demand aspects of economic opportunity. In terms of supply, that means helping young people build critical skills. But on the demand side, communities are working to create career pathways and public amenities that young people will want to return to. For example, Spearman, Texas, residents raised over $1 million to build a community center. A town in Nebraska secured a $5 million loan to extend broadband internet locally. And in Perryton, Texas, the community is supporting two local students while they attend medical school in exchange for their commitment to return to the town after they complete their residencies.

In these communities, individualism and collectivism coexist in a healthy balance. Young people and adults are expected to participate and work through challenges, but they do so in part to improve and sustain their community. There is still plenty of work to be done, particularly in terms of overcoming racial barriers, but by and large the presence of these six factors seems to be leading to positive results.

To close out the report, the authors sought to broaden their perspective on the six factors by interviewing and surveying community leaders in six additional counties that had relatively average levels of economic mobility. Although each county had geographic or cultural areas where all six factors existed to a varying degree, they also had places where the factors were nonexistent. In general, the counties had fewer organized activities, a diminished sense of shared responsibility, limited summer and part-time employment, and a lack of opportunity to build life skills.

This field report studied only a small set of communities. More research is needed to deeply understand not only the unique needs of rural communities, but also potential solutions. Nevertheless, this report and the six factors it identifies are a solid framework for any rural Ohio community interested in creating a brighter future for its youth.

SOURCE: Mark McKeag, Mike Soskis, Luis Ramos & Bill Breen, “Social Mobility in Rural America: Insights from Communities Whose Young People Are Climbing the Income Ladder,” National 4-H Council and The Bridgespan Group (November 2018).

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Jessica Poiner is a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked as a high school English teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, she taught for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District. A native of Ohio, Jessica holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Baldwin-Wallace University. 

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