Finding the “American Dream” in rural America

(L-R) Jeremiah Underhill is shown on the family property with son Dalton on his shoulders, wife and mother Annette, and baby Blake in her arms at their home in Richfield, Pennsylvania March 8, 2016. Picture taken March 8, 2016. To match Special Report USA-WATER/LEAD REUTERS/Gary Cameron - WASEC381SER01

An assumed characteristic of the “American Dream” is that it applies universally to all Americans, regardless of where they are born or whether their hometown is a bustling metropolis or sleepy rural town.

However, new research from Brookings Senior Fellow Richard Reeves and Eleanor Krause, a senior research assistant in the Center on Children and Families at Brookings, suggests this might not be the case, particularly across rural America. Achieving upward “absolute intergenerational mobility”—or growing up to be better off than your parents—is still difficult for many Americans. While some rural communities appear successful at bolstering opportunity, others exhibit exceedingly low rates of upward mobility.

In their new report “Rural dreams: Upward mobility in America’s countryside,” Krause and Reeves combine county-level socioeconomic data with mobility datasets from the Equality of Opportunity Project—a research project led by Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and Nathaniel Hendren—to examine rates of upward mobility in rural America and ask: What is driving the large variation in upward mobility across America’s most rural counties?

A wealth of research demonstrates that rural populations face unique challenges to achieving upward mobility. Rural Americans, on average, experience lower incomes, lower levels of education, and lower life expectancy than their urban counterparts, and overall, rural communities are more likely to exhibit persistent poverty.

Despite these challenges, Krause and Reeves discover that some rural counties exhibit high rates of upward mobility—and some perform even better than larger metropolitan areas. But many rural counties are still lagging behind, and this disparity between the highest and lowest performing counties should be noteworthy to policymakers and anyone who wants to ensure that all communities provide residents with a shot at the American Dream.


Non-metropolitan (or “rural”) counties make up 72 percent of the U.S. land area, and are home to 14 percent of the total population. In this study, Krause and Reeves study a subset of these rural counties—those that have very low populations (i.e., fewer than 20,000 residents), are not adjacent to a metro area, or both. Of the one-third of U.S. counties that fit this definition, according to the Economic Research Service’s Rural-Urban Continuum Codes (RUCC), the authors were able to retrieve mobility statistics for 741 counties, which make up about 4 percent of the U.S. population.


The authors consider a measure of absolute mobility used by Raj Chetty and his team in “Where is the land of opportunity? The geography of intergenerational mobility in the United States.” Their analysis shows that on average, rural counties have mobility rates as high as their urban counterparts, but that there is much more variation, too. America’s rural counties exhibit some of the highest rates of upward mobility in the country, as well as some of the lowest.

Below are the 15 counties with the highest and lowest absolute mobility score from the authors’ sample.

Top 15 rural U.S. counties for social mobilityBottom 15 rural U.S. counties for social mobility
There are some clear differences between high-mobility counties and those that might be considered “mobility traps” in terms of education, work experience, family stability, and out-migration. Rural counties in the Southeast tend to have much lower upward mobility scores than those in the Great Plains, which generally perform quite well. These regional differences might be explained by disparities in things like investments in primary education and patterns of family structure we witness at the county level.


The counties that exhibit the highest rates of upward mobility share many features. In particular, the authors found that K-12 quality and family structure are strongly associated with upward mobility in rural areas—even more so than across all counties.

Though many of these metrics are merely descriptive, their relationship is compelling and reveals how some counties are successfully preparing young residents for success in adulthood.

The authors also highlight the importance of considering how race plays a role in upward mobility. Black Americans do not enjoy the same level of upward mobility as their white counterparts, and that opportunity gap has persisted for several generations. This is corroborated in Krause and Reeve’s latest study, which shows that rates of upward mobility, for both black and white Americans, is lower in places with larger African-American populations.

Krause and Reeves also note the link between migration away from rural areas and higher rates of upward mobility. Counties with the highest rates of upward mobility also have the most negative rates of net migration in the 2000-2010 period, particularly among those ages 15-24. The mobility statistics are anchored to where the individual lived at age 16, so these counties appear to be providing young residents with some beneficial combination of factors that improve their outcomes later on.

The authors write:

The broad lesson of our findings is that in counties where children are able to prepare well for adult life, they do well: even if, in many cases, this means moving elsewhere. Country boys and girls from modest backgrounds can go on to succeed every bit as much as their city cousins.

We find that growing up in a stable family, attending a good school, and getting some work experience are all more likely for those in the counties showing the higher upward mobility rates.

In the full report, Krause and Reeves provide more detail on the features that are common in high mobility counties vs. counties that might be considered “mobility traps.” The authors also discuss how making investments in K-12 education, infrastructure, and family planning may aid struggling counties become lands of opportunity by better preparing their young people for adulthood.

For more information on the authors and the full report, read “Rural dreams: Upward mobility in America’s countryside.”

Chris McKenna contributed to this post.