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What is the “rural advantage”?

New study considers why boys raised in rural poverty economically outperform their urban peers as adults

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What is the “rural advantage”?

Daniel Stegeman grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan, the Canadian province that borders Montana and North Dakota. There was always food on the table for him and his two sisters, but money was tight. Yet Stegeman, who has pastored in the United States for 15 years, described his childhood as stable, which he partially attributed to his parents’ marriage. “I grew up in a two-parent home,” he said. “There was never that question, ‘Are they going to stick together?’”

A study published in October reported that children raised in rural poverty have higher average incomes as adults than children raised in urban poverty. The study’s authors attributed this so-called “rural advantage” to the greater number of two-parent households. But according to the researchers, that advantage only holds for boys.

The study found that girls raised in rural poverty attained lower levels of personal income as adults than their urban peers. While the researchers believe this is “partly due to the persistence of traditional gender norms,” men and women who grew up in rural areas offer a more nuanced perspective.

The study, published in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, included over 20.5 million people born between 1978 and 1983 who lived in either an urban or a rural place as a child during the 1990s. Economic mobility was assessed by comparing childhood to adult economic status in 2014-15, when the study participants were in their mid-30s.

The study used statistical models to estimate income mobility for children from households at the 25th percentile of the national income distribution, valued at $27,000 per year. The models showed a 23 percent increase in adult household income for every standard deviation increase in childhood rural experience. Further analysis showed that poorer children raised in rural areas were nearly 15 percent more likely to grow up in a two-parent household.

“There’s something of a big-city bias in academia and journalism,” lead author Dylan Connor told me in an email. “We’re providing a more positive story on a rural upbringing and hopefully one that leads us to rethink some of these assumptions.”

Connor and his colleagues noted a significant difference in personal income between men and women. While girls raised in rural poverty experienced better household incomes as adults than did their urban peers, they had the lowest personal incomes across both genders and childhood contexts. The study suggests a catch-22: while the stability of a two-parent household allows boys to flourish economically, the implied acceptance of traditional gender roles in these circumstances limits girls’ future economic prospects.

Glenn Daman, pastor of River Christian Church in Stevenson, Wash., (population 1,656) and long-time advocate for rural ministry, agreed with many of the study’s findings. “It goes back to that strong sense of community that they grew up in,” he said. Moving beyond two-parent households, Daman noted that rural communities tend to adhere to a group morality. While it’s not necessarily Christian, it’s rooted in a Judeo-Christian ethic. “That leads to, also, I think a sense of hard work and a work ethic in rural areas,” he said.

But both Stegeman and Daman felt the study’s assessment of girls’ “rural disadvantage” was oversimplified. Women who don’t have personal income typically perform a higher amount of unpaid labor at home. Stegeman said he hopes his own daughters view both unpaid work within the home and paid work outside the home as God-glorifying.

Stegeman also noted that he now lives near an Amish community, where women work exclusively within the home. “They’re working hard, but it’s at home, and that’s not going to register in all the statistics,” he said.

Estimates of how much a stay-at-home mom would make if she were paid for her work vary. GoBanking Rates, using 2023 workers’ wages for jobs including childcare, housework, and transportation, found that stay-at-home moms could earn just under $40,000 annually. Insure.com assigned a median annual salary of approximately $133,000 in 2023, using salary data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to assign a value to unpaid work.

Heather Frank

Heather is a science correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, the University of Maryland, and Carnegie Mellon University. She has worked in both food and chemical product development, and currently works as a research chemist. Heather resides with her family in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Thank you for your careful research and interesting presentations. —Clarke

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