Income mobility better for kids from rural counties, study finds

People who grew up poor in many rural counties in Kansas have a better chance of moving into the middle class than those who grew up in urban areas such as Wichita, a study shows.

The study found that people who grew up in Sedgwick County will make an average of $6,140 less per year by the time they are 26 than a person who grew up in Kingman County.

These findings come from a national study about income mobility called the Equality of Opportunity Project by two Harvard economists, Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren.

“In Kansas, the cities are OK to good, and then there’s some rural areas that are really good,” said Nikolaus Hildebrand, a doctoral fellow at the Lab for Economic Applications and Policy at Harvard University, who assisted Chetty with the research.

Sedgwick County sits among the worst counties in Kansas for income mobility, or a child’s ability to make more money than his or her parents. But in the bigger picture, Sedgwick County sits only slightly below the national average, data from the study shows.

Hildebrand said that overall, children who grow up in rural counties will make more money than children from urban counties.

The study highlighted some primary factors that lead to better mobility, such as elementary schools with higher test scores, a higher share of two-parent families, greater levels of involvement in civic and religious groups, and more affluent, middle-class and poor families living in the same neighborhoods.

This is the first study to show that where you grew up does matter, Hildebrand said. The study tracks individual IRS filings, meaning the data is individualized, rather than aggregated. The Harvard researchers studied more than five million children whose families moved across counties between 1996 and 2012. The study required at least 250 people to move out of each county for the data to be viable. Because of that, much of western Kansas was not included in the report.

The longer a child lives in an upwardly mobile county, the greater impact it will have on their earnings by age 26, according to the study.

“You keep their parent’s income and their individual characteristics fixed, you just improve their surroundings,” Hildebrand said.

The study focused primarily on social factors rather than the economic environment of each county.

“As a child, you can’t decide strategically where you grow up,” Hildebrand said.

Hildebrand said fundamental demographic differences between rural and urban counties likely contribute to higher earnings in rural Kansas. To illustrate his point, he said to imagine moving a Los Angeles gang member to Kingman County.

“In Kingman, you couldn’t be a gang member anymore because there are no gangs,” he said. “And you would have much stronger communities, higher social capital and less income segregation in rural areas.”

The study discussed vouchers to help people move to better communities as a means to address income mobility. But Hildebrand cautioned the limit vouchers pose.

“Imagine moving 20,000 distressed people to Kingman County,” he said. “That would change the neighborhood, so there’s a certain maximum you could do.”

The Equality of Opportunity Project highlighted segregation by race and income as a detriment to income mobility.

Nonetheless, the white population in Kingman County sits at 96.7 percent, compared to 81.2 percent for Sedgwick County, according to Census data.

But Jeremy Hill, director of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University, says preference and choice opportunities in urban areas could play a large role in segregation.

In rural counties, he said, all children go to school with one another because a district may only have one high school or middle school. The same holds true for extracurricular activities and community makeup.

“In Sedgwick County, if I’m rich, I can choose to go to Maize and go to a rich school,” Hill said. “Here, you can look at each high school and see how they’re different pretty clearly.”

Hill said he suspects Kingman County has strong social ties given its small population, which the study highlighted as an important factor in a child’s earning outcomes. Hill also noted social and parent involvement as some of the most influential drivers for success.

But, he said the relationship between social environment and mobility can be hard. For example, moving from a Hispanic neighborhood to a more homogeneous neighborhood with better earning outcomes could compromise social ties.

“People are making choices to be around people they like,” he said, adding that it’s not just rich people choosing to be around other rich people.

But, that element of choice in urban areas can lead to higher segregation rates, and thus less income mobility for poorer residents.

Donna Ginther, professor and director for the Center for Science, Technology & Economic Policy at the University of Kansas, said moving forward, it’s important to identify specific characteristics about rural towns that contributed to their success.

Rural towns, she said, were much different 20 years ago and have lost schools and hospitals over the years.

“We need to figure out what amenities those places had 20 years ago and how we can incorporate them into today’s world,” she said.

She described the study as provocative and important, but noted “there’s still more work to do.”

Reach Gabriella Dunn at 316-268-6400 or gdunn@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @gabriella_dunn.

Comparing Kansas, national numbers

On average, here’s how much a year a child from a poor family will make depending on where they grew up compared with children in poor families nationwide.

Top three counties in Kansas:

Nemaha County: $8,510, or 33 percent, more at age 26

Marshall County: $6,430, or 25 percent, more at age 26

Kingman County: $5,760, or 22 percent, more at age 26

Bottom three counties in Kansas:

Sedgwick County: $380, or 1 percent, less at age 26

Shawnee County: $1,440, or 6 percent, less at age 26

Wyandotte County: $1,760, or 7 percent, less at age 26

Sources: New York Times; Equality of Opportunity Project