A new study illuminates factors that may support upward social mobility in rural America — the possibility that children will grow up to earn more than their parents. The “Social Mobility in Rural America: Insights from Communities Whose Young People Are Climbing the Income Ladder,” a field report from National 4-H Council and The Bridgespan Group, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, provides ideas and guiding questions that other communities might build upon, as they work to expand economic opportunity for their young people.
“There has been a lot of talk about how the ‘American Dream’ is playing out in rural communities,” says Mark McKeag, a Bridgespan partner and co-author of the report. “While much of that research has focused on analyzing social mobility in rural contexts, we took a different tack. We went into rural communities where upward mobility is thriving, to get a ground-level view of what that looks like.”
Bridgespan’s research team visited 19 communities across three Midwestern states and Texas, interviewing more than 200 public, private, and nonprofit community leaders, including over 100 middle and high school students.
With young people’s critical perspectives at the center, the field report surfaces six common factors that seem to support upward mobility in these 19 rural communities:
- A high expectation that youth will “opt in” and work hard to acquire the skills to build their future. Many of the communities infuse their young people with a sense of possibility — that if they set high goals and stay engaged, they can build a good life. As a result, there are both the expectation, and the pathways, for youth to “opt in” and participate in skill-building activities that might help them advance. “Opting out” is far less of an acceptable alternative.
- Strong, informal support systems, with neighbors helping neighbors. For young people who choose to opt in, there is often a tight social fabric to support them. Indeed, these communities’ high expectations are grounded in durable, informal support systems, deep investments in communal spaces, and celebrations of youth achievement.
- An early focus on career pathways. When considering their future careers, young people exuded a strong sense of direction. Education is not an abstraction, but a foundation for career development. In some communities, efforts to help children build in-demand skills begin in grammar school.
- A wealth of opportunities for youth to build life skills, regardless of the community’s size. All of the towns Bridgespan and 4-H studied — which range from populations of 600 to approximately 20,000 people—are small enough to ensure that all young people have an array of options to build skills, apart from working on a farm or in an after-school job. Although they are small and often remote, these communities provide enough access points for kids to engage.
- Many potential challenges to access opportunities, but creative solutions to overcome them. These communities do not just generate youth development opportunities. Residents work to ensure that as many young people as possible can seize on those opportunities, despite multiple potential barriers: financial, cultural, psychological, logistical, or simply a lack of awareness.
- A sense of shared fate and a deep commitment to sustaining the community. People in these small communities still recall existential threats from the past, such as the 1980s farm crisis and the oil industry’s busts. Against this backdrop, residents spoke of how their individual well-being is tied to their neighbor’s well-being — that their future depends on taking responsibility for sustaining their communities.
“While there has been renewed interest in social mobility in rural communities, we do not consistently see investment in young people or their voices represented as a critical part of these conversations,” says Jennifer Sirangelo, president and CEO, National 4-H Council. “In 4-H, we know that each community’s most powerful asset for growth and development is its young people. We sought to lift up this vital asset through this work with The Bridgespan Group.”
While the site visits and interviews, though meaningful and informative, touched just one percent of the country’s rural counties, common themes emerged across all of them. Concludes Bridgespan manager and co-author Mike Soskis: “We hope this report will enable leaders of rural communities, as the experts in their own places, to work towards a future where every young person has an opportunity to build a better economic life.”