Study Finds Common Factors Behind Social Mobility in Rural Communities

Study Finds Common Factors Behind Social Mobility in Rural Communities

Rural communities with the highest rates of economic mobility among young people tend to promote expectations that youth will "opt in" and work hard to acquire the skills they need to build a solid future, a report from the Bridgespan Group and National 4-H Council finds. 

Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and based on interviews with public, private, and nonprofit community leaders and middle and high school students in nineteen high-opportunity rural communities in Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Texas, the report, Social Mobility in Rural America (44 pages, PDF), identified six common factors that support upward mobility. In addition to having high expectations for youth, those communities have strong informal support systems with expectations grounded in a closely knit social fabric; emphasize the importance of career pathways as early as grammar school; offer a wealth of opportunities for youth to build life skills; have developed creative solutions to barriers to opportunity, including financial, cultural, psychological, logistical, and/or a lack of awareness; and have a deep commitment to community well-being and sustainability.

At the same time, the report notes that many rural communities struggle to overcome racial barriers. Indeed, none of the approximately two hundred rural counties in which at least a quarter of the population is African American ranked in the top quartile for upward mobility. Examples of efforts to promote inclusion and bridge social capital include teachers in Spearman, Texas, creating a "newcomer guidebook" in Spanish to help newly arrived immigrants orient themselves to the school and the community, and Minnesota's Office of Indian Education working to increase racial diversity among adults serving Native American students in the state's public schools.

"While there has been renewed interest in social mobility in rural communities, we do not consistently see the voices of young people represented as a critical part of these conversations," said National 4-H Council president and CEO Jennifer Sirangelo. "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."

"Social Mobility in Rural America." Bridgespan Group and National 4-H Council Report 11/15/2018. "Study of Rural Communities Whose Youth Are Thriving Reveals Six Common Factors That May Drive Upward Mobility." Bridgespan Group and National 4-H Council Press Release 11/15/2018.