Rural Life Gives Poor Kids Better Chance Of Success

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

In hopes of finding good news about rural communities that can help us rebuild the population of small towns and the countryside surrounding them, we are continually searching for headlines such as: “Rural Upbringing Raises Kids’ Future Earnings.” And, “Rural Childhood Contributes to Later Economic Success.”

If through these stories we can build a narrative that makes families think about moving here, maybe we can reverse the unsettling of rural America.

“Rural areas are more likely to have a combination of factors that help poor children succeed in the labor market later in life,” Bill Bishop writes in the Daily Yonder, a website covering rural issues. “Raj Chetty’s massive national study turns conventional wisdom on its head about the best places to grow up.” Chetty is an economist at Stanford University.

“Children growing up in poor families in three out of four rural counties have higher incomes than the national average at age 26 simply as a result of spending time in these communities,” he writes.

Why would growing up in a rural area, and the farther away from population centers of 50,000 or more the better, give children of poor families more of a chance for success?

In his article, Bishop points to what are called “neighborhood effects.” In rural areas, the effects are more nurturing, aiding a child’s development and chance for success later in life. In densely populated cities, these neighborhood effects can hinder a child’s later economic success as he or she moves into the job market. “In only 29 percent of these densely populated places do children in poor families grow up to earn more than the national average at age 26,” he writes.

“The study finds a number of factors that benefit children,” Bishop writes. “Communities that are less racially segregated, that don’t have wide disparities in income, that have good schools and have a strong civic life produce grown-ups who earn more than people who grow up in places without those qualities.”

It is these very qualities a person can find in a small town in very rural America. Chetty’s study found that if you want to improve a poor child’s chances of success the best place to move is one of the “sparsely populated counties on the Great Plains.”

In another Daily Yonder article, Kristen Devlin reviews a Penn State study that looks deeper into the factors that can shape a child’s chances of success later in life. “They found that being far removed from an urban area is beneficial to low-income children’s upward mobility, all other things being equal,” she writes.

Five factors were considered by the researchers, she writes, three having a negative impact on a child’s life and two with a positive result. The negative factors were:

- A greater share of single-mother households

- A higher high-school dropout rate

- And greater income inequality.

The two with beneficial impacts, she states, were:

- A greater share of jobs with commute times of 15 minutes or less

- And a greater amount of social capital.

Short commutes to work mean parents get to spend more time with their children instead of on the road. It also means they have more time to participate in the events as well as the social and civic groups in a community. It is through these social and civic connections and interactions that they build social capital.

“Social capital measures a community’s social networks and bonds that allow for feelings of belonging, trust and reciprocity among its residents,” Stephan Goetz, professor of agricultural and regional economics, Penn State, and director of the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development, told Devlin.

Even for those people who live in metropolitan areas with shorter drives “researchers found that the beneficial effect of short commute times was amplified in non-metro (rural) counties, where the effect was three times stronger than in metro (urban) counties,” Devlin writes.

Where rural counties had some work to do was on making life easier for single parents. Benson and the taxpayers of Benson Public Schools have made significant strides in that direction with their support of a school-based childcare program. Our new $26.3 million school bond building levy will add new classrooms at the Northside Elementary that focus on children starting with infants as young as six weeks.

Our city public transit system also helps single families with mobility in getting around the community, a factor that was seen as a negative in many rural communities.

Income inequality in small towns exists, but it is likely that children of all economic levels mix with each other more freely in a small town than they do in big cities where social groups and neighborhoods can stratify society. In school sports, band, choir, at our city swimming pool and out and about in the community children of all economic standings mix with each other.

The report states “metro counties are significantly more sensitive than non-metro counties to the negative consequences of a higher dropout rate.” Our dropout rates in Benson Public Schools are very low.

The studies give us more reason to promote the value of growing up in a rural Minnesota.

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