RSF Journal Contributors Discuss Their Findings on the Impacts of Growing Up Rural

October 3, 2022

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Jessica Drescher, Robert D. Francis, Lisa A. Keister, Emily E. N. Miller, Alejandra Miranda, Kai A. Schafft, and Jennifer Sherman are contributors to RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation of the Social Sciences double issue “Growing Up Rural: How Place Shapes Life Outcomes,” edited by Shelley Clark (McGill University), Sam Harper (McGill University), and Bruce Weber (Oregon State University). The 15 articles in the special double issue provide a comprehensive look at the impact that growing up rural has across the lifespan, examining both the challenges and advantages of growing up in rural America. In a new interview with the foundation, these contributors discuss the effects of rural life on family, educational attainment, and economic security. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jessica Drescher is an education policy PhD candidate at Stanford University. She is co-author of the article “The Geography of Rural Educational Opportunity.”
Robert D. Francis is assistant professor of sociology at Whitworth University. He is the author of the article “Movin’ On Up? The Role of Growing Up Rural in Shaping Why Working-Class Men Do – and Don’t – Seek to Improve Their Labor Market Prospects.”
Lisa A. Keister is professor of sociology and public policy at Duke University. She is co-author of the article “Rural Kids and Wealth.” She is a contributor to RSF journal issue “Wealth Inequality and Child Development” and a recipient of multiple RSF research grants.
Emily E. N. Miller is a population studies and social policy graduate student at Princeton University. She is co-author of the article “Coming of Age in Appalachia, Emerging of Expedited Adulthood?”
Alejandra Miranda is an educational psychology graduate student at University of Minnesota. She is co-author of the article, “Context of Educational Aspirations and School Grades of Rural Students.”
Kai A. Schafft is professor of education and rural sociology at Pennsylvania State University. He is co-author of the article “Turning Their Back on Kids: Inclusions, Exclusions, and the Contradictions of Schooling in Gentrifying Rural Communities.”
Jennifer Sherman is professor of sociology at Washington State University. She is co-author of the article “Turning Their Back on Kids: Inclusions, Exclusions, and the Contradictions of Schooling in Gentrifying Rural Communities.”  

Q. Previously, scholars have believed that the migration of middle-class urban professional to rural areas is beneficial to rural communities they bring more resources. However, this is not the case. Can you talk about some of the ways in which rural gentrification exacerbates inequality, particularly in schools?

Sherman: I want to start by saying that I wouldn't say that's exactly true. It is true that the migration of middle-class urban professionals to a rural area is beneficial to those communities and that it brings more resources. What we were looking at was that those resources, it turns out, are not distributed equally amongst all community members, and that those inequalities really play out through the local schools. In our paper, we looked at a remote rural community in Washington state that had received a lot of middle-class in-migrants. We noticed a few different ways in which those resources get unequally distributed. So, the first thing we noted is that parents have different levels of human capital, different educational experiences, and different understandings of educational goals. And those things really impact their ability to help their children through the school process. Do they know what it means to go to college? Do they know how to help their children get through college? Those kinds of differences will matter. And those parents who had more education themselves are going to be much more effective at helping their children get through school and understanding what they need to do to make it through that next stage. So that alone is going to set them up for sort of different levels of success. Particularly with regard to college attendance – whether or not you know how to navigate that process will impact whether or not you can help your child through it.

Secondly, we find that, again, the same kinds of differences in resources, whether it's monetary, educational and human capital, or social connections – who people know – will differentially impact just how much confidence parents have in interacting with school administrators and teachers in order to advocate for their children. On a monetary level, it's going to impact whether or not parents can afford different things. Particularly in our case study, we found that there were actually extracurricular activities that had fees attached to them. So those parents with more resources felt much more comfortable advocating for their kids' needs. And they were much better able to get their kids' needs met within the school in multiple ways, including access to elite curricula, if that's what they wanted, in different ways.

Finally, we looked at how the cumulative effects of those earlier types of inequalities will impact where kids go after high school. Do they stay in the community? Or do they leave to pursue college? And we found that those earlier inequalities definitely impact who stays and who leaves. Kids from families with more resources are more likely to leave the area to pursue higher education and job skills and training elsewhere. And those who stay then get branded by the community as flawed in some way – as less skilled workers, as lazy, as various things. And then that moral stain will hurt them, not just in their educational trajectories, but in their later life, particularly their labor market trajectories.

Schafft: That's a really good synopsis of this work. And I think just more generally, we often assume, regarding economic development in rural places or elsewhere, that this influx of wealth and resources is going to have broadly positive effects. So, the saying, “Rising tide lifts all boats.” But that's not necessarily the case. And to extend the metaphor, boats have to be seaworthy to take advantage of a rising tide. What we often see in gentrifying areas is that this wealth influx often simply reproduces or even deepens the inequalities that existed in the first place. And we certainly see this, for example, in housing, something that I've studied in other pieces of research that I've done, where rising housing costs and shrinking availability associated with gentrification works to push out more economically vulnerable residents. And I think it's important to note that these dynamics can easily play out within schools as we as we detail in this paper. These processes become especially apparent in situations, I would argue, where educational policies turn low-income students, who are often also lower achieving students, into liabilities for schools and school districts. They do this through things like high stakes testing, in which lower achieving students are seen as threats to a school student achievement assessment; particularly in the context of higher achieving more highly resourced students. So, in these circumstances, increased housing insecurity and these kinds of economic changes can really place students in double jeopardy, where vulnerable students face both increased housing insecurity and residential instability and social stigma within schools. But, rural school settings, because of their smaller sizes, often have an increased ability to ensure that vulnerable students don't fall through the cracks. And I think that a real lesson from this paper is how important it is to not assume that increased community wealth will necessarily spread its benefits evenly, and that already disadvantaged students may be placed in even more educationally vulnerable circumstances in gentrifying communities. And this may be counterintuitive for many people, and it's certainly something important for educators and educational leaders to keep in mind.

Sherman: Absolutely. And I think it's also important to recognize that a lot of those inequalities that we were looking at already exist in these rural communities. There's already a lot of educational inequality even in a more homogenous rural community. But, when you add in a bunch of outsiders who have a lot more resources than everybody else, it can really exacerbate those inequalities, rather than fix them.

Q. How do educational outcomes vary between rural and non-rural students? How do they vary amongst rural students?

Drescher: I think the most important thing to understand is that educational outcomes vary greatly among rural communities. Though rural communities across the U.S. share common challenges. It's clear from our research that some of these communities have more educational opportunities than others. When looking specifically at third grade test scores, which my research team thinks about as a measure of both in and out of school opportunities to learn, we see that rural children in New England are scoring on average, two grade levels higher than rural children in the Pacific region of the U.S. It's important to note that these are averages, so, in any given rural community, there are individual children scoring very high, and others scoring very low on these tests. But the averages tell us something about the systematic opportunities in a community. It's important to figure out what's contributing to these differences. For example, we looked at whether some of these differences were driven by how remote a rural community is, since we know that more geographic isolation also means lower access to social goods, such as broadband internet and basic health services. It turns out that this does explain a small piece of these differences, but that's it, a small piece. There's a lot more to understand when looking at differences among rural students.

The comparison between rural students and non-rural students is also nuanced. If you take the average achievement for each group, they're not very different. But this changes when you dig a little deeper. For example, there are many types of non-rural students. Some of them live in dense urban centers attending massive school districts. Some of them live in well-resourced suburbs, attending school districts with lots of amenities. If you take a look at students attending large city districts, they score, on average, half a grade level below rural students. And if you take a look at students attending large suburban districts, they score, on average, half a grade level ahead of rural students. These differences intersect with the fact that different types of students live in different types of districts. Think about wealthy students, for example, in both urban and suburban areas, wealthy parents are able to buy a lot of advantage for their kids. But in rural areas, they may not be able to do that to the same extent. All of these differences matter when you're thinking about average performance. To this point, we see significantly smaller differences in test scores between our wealthiest and poorest students in rural districts than we observe elsewhere. This is something worth understanding better. I think most Americans would agree that this is a type of outcome we'd like to see in our nation's schools. We'd like to see a world where all students, the richest, the poorest, and everyone in between, have the opportunity to meet their fullest potential.

Q. How do rural students’ school grades and educational aspirations compare to their urban counterparts? What factors are related to grades and educational aspirations for rural students?

Miranda: In my study with Dr. Michael C. Rodriguez, we explored whether there were differences in school rates and educational aspirations, specifically college aspirations. We compared the students from rural and urban school districts using the Minnesota Student Survey from 2013, 2016, and 2019. We had over 369,000 students from grades eight, nine and 11; 59% were from urban school districts and 41% from rural school districts. We found that on average, students from rural school districts had slightly lower school grades but substantially lower college aspirations relative to students from urban school districts. For instance, 74% of students from urban schools wanted to attend college, as compared to only 61% of students from rural schools.

When it comes to the question of contexts associated with grades and educational aspirations, we found that race and ethnicity made a difference. We found that Latino and American Indian students had lower school grades and educational aspirations than non-Latino and non-American Indian students. Sex was also a factor – girls had higher school grades and college aspirations than boys. We also found developmental, social, and emotional skills, such as commitment to learning and positive identity were associated with higher school grades and educational aspiration for all students. This suggesting that social emotional learning (SEL) is relevant to both urban and rural students.

In summary, when looking at these educational contexts in rural and urban communities, the differences in school performance rates we found were small. In contrast, the differences in cultural provisions were not negligible, and these could be due in part to cultural factors beyond school characteristics that shape education aspirations of our students. I think of rural students’ uncertainties that come from moving away from home to go to college, for example. The results are also important because they illuminate the additional challenges that communities of color face, particularly Latino and American Indian youth, who have lower school grades and educational aspirations in both urban and rural school districts. Nevertheless, it's important to highlight the one promising approach available to schools and communities is promoting and supporting SEL skills. This should be of particular interest to rural school districts, since addressing unique community context is a pathway to greater educational success and opportunities for all students.

Q. Scholars have identified five major life events that have typically indicated that a person has reached adulthood: Leaving home, finishing school, finding work, getting married, and having children. How does attainment of these markers of adulthood vary by class in high poverty, white, rural communities?

Miller: My paper with Dr. Katherine Edin examines the transition to adulthood in a rural southeastern Kentucky County. Scholars have classified five major life events that typically marked adulthood: getting married, having children, pursuing higher education, getting a job, and leaving home. However, there's lots of variation in the ordering of these markers by subgroup, such as class and race. We discovered that even within the predominantly white and high poverty community we studied, there existed a stark class divide and how young adults navigated this time period and achieved these markers. The path to adulthood for middle-class young adults in this community frequently followed the pattern for the U.S. middle class – schooling and career came first, and marriage and children frequently occurred at the end of the young adult years. This path is described as “emerging young adulthood” and is viewed as a time to invest in oneself and set up a foundation for a future life and family. However, for the low-income residents in this community adulthood was expediated. And once additional markers were met, young adulthood was shaped by instability.

The majority of low-income young adults had children and got married early – in their late teens or early 20s – while the middle-class were able to pursue education and often returned to their community for well-paying jobs, due in part to their social ties. The lower-income families were unable to attain an education or a job. This was despite the universal desire and great lengths low-income youths took to find stable work or finish their education (whether it be high school or college), such as walking miles while pregnant. Throughout the county, there were few full-time jobs available and those that did exist were low paying or inaccessible due to a lack of reliable transportation or childcare. Finally, regarding leaving the home, some low-income adults were able to forge an independent household, but it was tenuous. People often needed to return home or double up with other families.

Addiction complicated the class divide. Addiction touched nearly everyone in the county, but for the middle-class young adults, they had access to more social support. For our low-income young adults, early marriages were frequently marred by addiction and domestic violence. Their young adult years were spent trying to choose between being a partner and being a parent, and many young adults separated before they turned 25. Once these young adults, often mothers, got divorced, they were viewed as living outside the moral code of the traditional family. And this code prevailed throughout the community, especially in religious institutions. Furthermore, it was hard to establish an independent household when family and friends needed help. Young adults pooled resources but addiction fueled mistrust, leaving people without access to a support system. At the same time, these young adults were trying to find a way to stabilize their lives and better their prospects through jobs or education, but any progress they made was fleeting. Even after the age of 30, meeting these markers of adulthood remained out of reach despite repeated attempts.

Policies that create reliable transportation, more jobs with better wages, transitional housing, as well as improved access to childcare and addiction treatment could boost the safety net. These policies would also set up every young adult and their children regardless of their background for success in these formative years and beyond.

Q. Young adults raised in rural communities are less likely than their peers in other geographic regions to have a negative net worth. How do they differ from their peers with regards to other components of wealth? What role do factors such as education, social connections, and job opportunities play in these differences?

Keister: I co-authored the paper “Rural Kids and Wealth” with Dr. James Moody and Dr. Tom Wolfe. The paper is about how rural kids accumulate wealth differently than kids who are not brought up in rural areas. We start off by talking about what wealth ownership is and we distinguish this from income. Wealth ownership is a crucial component of economic security, and wealth in young adulthood provides particularly important evidence regarding peoples’ life trajectories.

It's important to point out that wealth is the things people own. It’s easily easy to conflate wealth and income. But importantly, we're talking about assets and debts as opposed to the flow of money into the household, which is more commonly referred to as income. It's easy also to think of wealth as just referring to high net worth households, but even a small amount of savings or home equity can provide significant advantages. Wealth can be used, for example, to create a financial buffer in the case of a medical or other emergency. Wealth can also generate more wealth and can be used to enhance investment value and other use value, as in the case of a home.

We ask three questions in this paper. First, we ask what is the association between growing up rural and young adult wealth? So, what happens when you grow up in a rural area and your young adult wealth? Second, we ask how does the association between growing up rural and young adult wealth vary across wealth measures? Which are net worth, financial assets, homeownership, and debt. And finally, we asked how do educational attainment, social relations, and job outcomes mediate the relationship between growing up rural and young adult wealth?

So, why would geography matter? Well, there are unique demographic, economic and social conditions that characterize rural communities. And we propose that these are likely to interact in important and nuanced ways to shape young adult wealth ownership. We propose that educational challenges in rural communities are likely to shape young adult wealth ownership because educational attainment really is one of the strongest and most consistent predictors of wealth ownership. Education provides the skills needed to invest to buy real estate to assume debt and pay it off in sensible ways. Educational attainment is also associated with family size, female labor force participation, and both personal and total income. All of these interact with each other and contribute to the way you accumulate assets.

Another proposal we make is that social connections matter. There's previous research that highlights the presence of strong social support in rural communities. And that shows that rural youth may have stronger social ties and denser social networks than kids in other areas. We propose these intense peer relationships affect kids’ behaviors and outcomes in youth in ways that have been documented and that we propose extend to wealth ownership. There's evidence, for example, that adolescent social relations matter for things like grades, high school graduation, and other measures of academic achievement. They matter for delinquency, violence, contact with the criminal justice system, for self-reported health, smoking, substance abuse, and a whole range of other health outcomes. And we anticipate that these relationships are going to matter for the way young adults accumulate wealth.

And finally, job opportunities and income are likely to matter. We expect that jobs and income are going to be an important link between a rural upbringing and young adult wealth. We know, for example, that agriculture, low skilled manufacturing, and natural resource industries have been replaced with lower paying jobs and service industry occupations in many rural areas. So, income and occupational advancement just have simply lagged behind the urban areas. And we anticipate that these lower opportunities in terms of jobs and income are likely to feed into net worth accumulation as well.

We had three expectations in our study. First, we propose that young adults raised in rural areas are going to be less likely to have negative net worth. They're not going to be in debt, but they're going to have fewer financial assets compared to people raised in other areas. We also propose that young adults raised in rural areas are more likely to become homeowners, but they're going to have less mortgage debt than those kids raised in other regions. And finally, we propose that educational attainment, social ties, and income are going to mediate the relationship between growing up rural and young adult wealth ownership, and that these respective mediators are going to differ by wealth component. And we find compelling evidence that each of these expectations are true. In this paper, we analyze data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which is also called Add Health. It's a longitudinal study of U.S. adolescents. The first wave was completed in the 1990s and included adolescents who were in grades seven through 12. There have been two additional waves subsequent to that and we used all three waves to do this analysis.

There certainly are policy implications of this work. I'm sure the other authors for this volume are going to make the same point that a one size fits all policy regarding urban and rural people is certainly not ideal. So, an attention by policymakers to the differences between rural and urban areas is certainly in order. In particular, when it comes to wealth ownership, financial literacy regarding savings is particularly important. So, what does it mean to buy a house? What does it mean to accumulate financial assets? For example, most kids don't leave high school understanding what a retirement plan is. A little bit of information in high schools regarding those kinds of saving opportunities, the basics of savings, and the importance of savings are all important and might help people accumulate wealth more responsibly and effectively.

Q. Over the past few decades, men have seen significant decreases in earnings, job quality, and job stability. Can you briefly talk about the strategies rural, working-class men use to improve their labor market positions and why they choose these strategies?

Francis: My research concerns what it means to be a working-class man in a time when men with less formal education have seen significant decreases in earnings, job quality and job stability. My interest in this topic stems from my own experience growing up in a rural working-class household. For example, the steel mill in my hometown closed when I was in high school. So, in this research, I was curious about the work experiences of men who never left my hometown or those who had left and then returned. For this paper with RSF, I was interested in looking specifically at the strategies that rural working-class men use to improve their labor market positions and why they choose these strategies. I think there is a sense from some outside observers that men in rural places with poor employment prospects should adopt one of at least three strategies: Get more education and training; move away to a place with better opportunities; or take a job not traditionally done by men, particularly in healthcare. So, in my research, I look at the degree to which men adopt these strategies and the reasons why or why not.

The education pathway has received a lot of recent attention, especially in light of trends that show that men are not going to college as much as in the past. For example, The Atlantic recently declared in a headline that colleges have a "guy problem." So many people are thinking about ways to "fix" this gender gap in college going. Among the men I talked to, most had at least attempted some form of higher education. I see this at least in part as a sign that the message about college has gotten through. However, what is perhaps more interesting with these men are the types of education that they pursue. These men pursued credentials, for example, to be truck drivers, medical technicians, auto and bicycle mechanics, police officers, welders, tattoo artists, and so on. In short, they still wanted working-class, traditionally male work. These men continue to want working-class jobs and they value the “masculine nature” of such work, like working with their hands, sometimes outside, including sometimes autonomously. So, I argue in the paper that men are not opposed to higher education, but it must reinforce and not create distance from their identities as working-class men.

Second, I look at the degree to which men moved away for work. By definition, the men I talked with were currently living in a rural place, so I was surprised at the degree to which men had moved for work. In this study, about one-third of the men had moved out of state for work at some point. However, these forays across state lines often took the form of what I call prospecting trips, where they would move but often without much of a plan and certainly without a job in mind. They would kind of nebulously be looking for better opportunities. But, because of this lack of planning, and perhaps a lack of skill, they would often fail to find anything, and they would return often in relatively short order. I also argue in the paper that a narrow focus on just out-of-state residential moves misses other, what I call, mobility measures taken by these men – where they show a willingness to be mobile in search of work. For example, by taking a job that requires extensive travel, like truck driving or enlisting in the military. Both of which many of the men in the study had done at one point. However, I find that for at least this group of men, their deep attachment to rural place keeps them either rooted there or coming back, even if they might theoretically make more money elsewhere. Many of these men also have a suspicion of urban space in a way that made it unattractive to them, even if, theoretically, they might make more money there.

Finally, I look at the degree to which men took jobs that were not traditionally done by men. This is another area that has received quite a bit of attention – the so-called pink-collar work and questions about why more men aren't moving into jobs like nursing. In this study, very few of the men had actually moved into these types of jobs, although many more men had at least considered it, and even taken some preliminary steps in that direction. The few men who were doing female-type of work in the study, such as working at a reception desk or being a nurse, testified that they did receive quite a bit of teasing. Which shows that there is still some resistance and a cultural cost to defying traditional gender logics, even if the men also talked about ways in which they push back against that. It's worth noting, too, that many of the traditionally female jobs in this area don't pay much better than the traditionally male, blue-collar jobs that remain. So for most men, the gender logics of the place and their own sense of working class identities still keep them more or less pursuing traditionally male labor market pathways. It's also worth noting that many of the better paying female-type jobs, like teaching and nursing, do require additional levels of education, which for various reasons, are out of reach for some of these men or not a good fit for their self-conceptions.

Overall, I think that the men in this study had made more efforts to improve their labor market positions than traditional accounts give credit for. But, more is going on in the calculations of these men than simple economics. Their identities as rural working-class men and their attachment to rural place really matter. Hopefully this work helps elected officials and policymakers as they think about how to understand and come alongside working-class men.


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