Cornerstones: Economic Mobility and Belonging in Oregon
What Matters for Opportunity
The American dream assumes that economic prosperity is available to everyone—regardless of their socioeconomic status or geography—and that anyone with enough drive, ambition and self-discipline can find success.
According to a 2019 survey conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, National Public Radio and the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, 93% of high-income adults, 89% of middle-income adults and 87% of low-income adults believe that hard work is the most important factor in achieving economic success.
But the truth is more complicated. A robust body of research shows that the conditions in which we are born, grow and age are critical to our health and prosperity, and that not everyone has an equal chance at economic success.
To understand the lives of individuals and groups, we must consider the role of the systems, institutions, and communities they live in. Family circumstances, neighborhood, educational experiences, and race and ethnicity are closely connected to economic advancement and achievement. Still, fewer than 40% of Americans in all income groups believe that these are “essential” or “very important” factors in shaping economic success (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation et al., 2020).
One way to measure the health of the American dream is to study how many children grow up to earn more than their parents, a concept known as “economic mobility” (Chetty et al., 2014). In the United States, economic mobility has been on the decline for decades. Ninety percent of children born in the 1940s fared better economically than their parents. Only half of those born in the 1980s have done the same. And for the first time in U.S. history, children born today are unlikely to do as well as their parents (Chetty et al., 2017).
Economic mobility is unevenly distributed and is especially low for children born into poverty and for children of color. Nearly 40% of children born into the lowest-income households remain in the bottom 25% of income earners in adulthood (Chetty et al., 2014). Compared to white children, upward mobility for Black and Native American children is substantially lower and downward mobility much higher. Black children born into the lowest 25% of incomes have just a 2.5% chance of rising to the top 25% as adults. For their white peers, the rate is four times higher (Chetty et al., 2019). These economic and racial disparities are primarily driven by systemic structural conditions and policies that marginalize low-income people and people of color (Volmert et al., 2016).
Since OCF published Toward a Thriving Future, our 2017 TOP report about the opportunity gap in Oregon, more evidence has surfaced that where a child grows up plays a significant role in that child’s future success. Although most of this report was written before March 2020, we know that the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic crisis and the devastating wildfires have exacerbated opportunity gaps for low-income children, children of color and children in rural communities.
This report explores the connections between place and economic mobility with the hope of identifying paths forward to ensure a brighter future for low-income children and children of color throughout Oregon.
The following section explores what we know about why place matters. We then describe trends in economic mobility and provide in-depth profiles of four Oregon communities where low-income children have some of the best chances of making it out of poverty. Last, we discuss implications for Oregon and offer recommendations for further exploration and action.
What Matters for Opportunity
The communities where children grow up significantly affect their long-term outcomes, including health, educational achievement, economic mobility and well-being (Melchior et al., 2007). Developmental trajectories are set early and reinforced through social contexts like families, neighborhoods and schools. These contexts can be positive and protective, or they can be damaging (Boivin & Hertzman, 2012).
A growing body of research suggests that differences in adult outcomes are based more often on neighborhood of origin than on individual or family characteristics. In other words, poor outcomes in adulthood are an effect of growing up in a low-opportunity neighborhood rather than a result of the factors that lead families to move to or remain in these neighborhoods (Wolfers, 2016).
For the last five years, Opportunity Insights (OI), a team of researchers and policy analysts based at Harvard University, has been studying how the places where children grow up shape their outcomes in adulthood. Led by economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren and John Friedman, OI researchers first looked at how outcomes differed by county and commuting zone.
Looking at children born between 1980 and 1988, they determined the impact of growing up in a certain county on future income. In Oregon, growing up in the northeastern region of the state generally has the most positive impact on income (see Figure 1). On average, children who grew up in low-income families in Wallowa, Baker or Grant counties earned 26% more than children in similar families in Jefferson County and 14% more compared to children in Multnomah County
FIGURE 1 GROWING UP IN NORTHEASTERN OREGON HAS THE MOST POSITIVE IMPACT ON HOUSEHOLD INCOME L ATER IN LIFE. Percent change in household income from national average for low-income children spending the first 20 years of life in a particular county.
In 2018, OI collaborated with the U.S. Census Bureau to determine the impact of neighborhoods on economic mobility. Using anonymized data from 20 million Americans who are now in their 30s, they created the Opportunity Atlas, an interactive mapping tool that allows users to explore how outcomes like income in adulthood, incarceration rates and graduation rates vary based on where children grew up.
Similar to previous research, OI measures economic mobility using actual outcomes for children born between 1978 and 1983 rather than proxies like current poverty rates and test scores. The researchers believe that these historical outcomes are better predictors of outcomes for children today. Comparing the original cohort to a cohort born a decade later, their research found the same places produced good outcomes for children over time.
In developing the Opportunity Atlas, researchers arrived at three new insights about the relationship between neighborhoods and economic mobility
Place continues to be an important factor in outcomes for children. Children who grew up just a few miles apart in families with similar incomes can experience vastly different outcomes. This finding held true across a variety of outcomes and in both urban and rural settings, suggesting that opportunity is shaped by community-level factors.
Outcomes can vary by gender and race/ ethnicity for children growing up in the same neighborhoods in families with similar incomes. In other words, discrimination and bias play a role in economic mobility.
The amount of time children spend growing up in high-opportunity neighborhoods matters. The more time a child spends in a higher opportunity neighborhood, the more they can expect to earn as an adult. OI identified several community-level factors that help explain variations in economic mobility across places, including economic and racial integration, social capital, employment rates and school quality. This section will explore what we know about how these factors influence opportunity and what they look like in Oregon.
HOUSING AFFORDABILITY & NEIGHBORHOOD INTEGRATION
Economically and racially segregated neighborhoods limit opportunity.
Families in poverty often lack the resources to meet their daily needs. This is compounded when they live in communities with few resources; growing up in a high-poverty neighborhood amplifies the effects of poverty (Turner et al., 2018). Children in low-income communities are much more likely to face deficits and negative exposures in their neighborhoods, and poverty undermines their ability to mitigate the negative effects of adversity (Boivin & Hertzman, 2012).
Almost 4 million U.S. children live in urban neighborhoods with a poverty rate above 30%, and 90% of children in high-poverty urban neighborhoods are children of color (Chetty, 2014; Turner et al., 2014). Compared to low-income whites, low-income Black people are much more likely to live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty (Volmert et al., 2016).
In Oregon, 57,000 children live in communities of concentrated poverty. This represents 7% of children, which is lower than the national rate primarily due to Oregon’s largely white population. Only 4% of white children live in concentrated poverty, but children of color are far more likely to live in high-poverty areas. In Oregon, 20% of American Indian and Alaska Native children, 14% of Black children and 12% of children from immigrant families live in concentrated poverty (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2019; see Figure 2).
Cities with higher rates of economic segregation have lower rates of intergenerational mobility (Sharkey, 2016). When more affluent families are geographically isolated, lower-income families are negatively affected. High-income communities have large tax bases to fund better-quality schools, services and health care. Because public schools are partly funded through property taxes, schools in these neighborhoods are better resourced, and students have higher educational achievement and adult employment outcomes. Through this mechanism, residential segregation leads to educational and employment segregation and has a compounding effect across generations (Volmert et al., 2016).
In addition to the unequal distribution of tax revenue and its economic implications, living in economically segregated neighborhoods means that people are less likely to interact and socialize with people from other income groups. Affluent people living in economically homogeneous neighborhoods have less empathy for those struggling economically; their lack of interaction also limits access to social capital for low-income people (Volmert et al., 2016).
Discriminatory policies, practices and institutions have created separate, unequal neighborhoods in Oregon.
Oregon’s history of segregation and exclusion dates to its early history as a state. The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 offered free land to white settlers, many of whom were drawn to Oregon to avoid economic competition from slaveholders. The land was given away by the government before any treaties with Native Americans had been signed; within five years, settlers had claimed 2.8 million acres of tribal land (Cain & Rosman, 2017). When treaties were signed, tribes moved to smaller, restricted areas with the understanding that they would 13 receive something in return (e.g., preservation of their fishing rights, cash or other needed resources). But often, the treaties were never ratified, and tribes never received anything in return for surrendering their land. Through a series of U.S. policies, many reservations also became smaller over time.
“The treaties weren’t negotiation. It was essentially Indian people being compelled to sign this with a promise that no harm will come your way. Don’t sign it, and all bets are off.”
CHIEF, COQUILLE INDIAN TRIBE
During the same time period, Black people were excluded from living in Oregon. Although slavery was outlawed in the state, voters added a clause to the state constitution in 1857 that made it illegal for Black people to reside in Oregon. The clause was repealed in 1926, but its language remained in our state constitution until 2002 (Gibson, 2007). Specific policies and practices have limited the ability of Oregonians of color to own homes, build equity and accumulate wealth across generations. Although many explicitly discriminatory government policies have been discontinued, their impacts remain, and lending practices continue to influence neighborhood demographics.
Specific policies and practices have limited the ability of Oregonians of color to own homes, build equity and accumulate wealth across generations. Although many explicitly discriminatory government policies have been discontinued, their impacts remain, and lending practices continue to influence neighborhood demographics.
In 1919, the Portland Realty Board began to prohibit sales of properties in white neighborhoods to people with Black or Chinese heritage, limiting people of color to a handful of neighborhoods. By 1960, 4 out of 5 Black Portlanders lived in a 4.3-square-mile area of Northeast Portland. In the 1980s, discriminatory lending practices, slumlords, neighborhood divestment and lack of access to financing forced many Black families out of Northeast Portland. Gentrification exploded in the following decade; white families were attracted to neighborhoods that were affordable because discriminatory practices had suppressed property values. The Black population was pushed farther north and east. By 2000, less than one-third of Black Portlanders lived in Northeast Portland (Gibson, 2007).
Because of this history of discrimination and displacement, home ownership rates in Oregon have always been far higher for whites than for people of color, and the gaps are larger than national averages (see Figure 3). In Multnomah County, communities of color have lower homeownership rates as well as median housing values nearly $50,000 below those of white homeowners (Curry-Stevens et al., 2010). People of color at every income range are about 50% more likely than whites to be denied mortgage applications in Multnomah County, and more likely to have unfavorable or predatory home loans (Curry-Stevens et al., 2010). One study on housing discrimination in Oregon found that Latino and Black renters are far more likely to be discriminated against by landlords (Hannah-Jones, 2010).
Discriminatory and exclusionary practices have blocked families of color at every income level from neighborhoods and communities with services, amenities and opportunities, including high-quality housing, schools, and essential public and private services (Turner et al., 2014; Pattillo-McCoy, 1999). Even as people of color have been excluded from areas with services, many 15 traditionally Black neighborhoods have suffered from divestment, deprived of the capital and resources that come from public or private investment and business opportunities in higher-income areas (Turner et al., 2014; Pattillo-McCoy, 1999; Gibson, 2007). Although residential segregation has been in decline since the 1960s, Black communities still experience the highest levels of segregation (Schuetz, 2017).
Regardless of where they live, many Oregon families struggle to afford housing.
More than 30% of children in Oregon live in cost-burdened households that spend more than 30% of family income on housing (see Figure 4). Children of color and low-income children are more likely to live in households with a high cost burden. Over 40% of Latino children and nearly 70% of low-income children live in cost-burdened households (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2019).
Nationally, cost-burdened housing is partly caused by slow wage growth. In Oregon, this is exacerbated by underproduction of housing, as construction has not kept pace with housing formation in most of the state since the 1990s. Just 63 new units of housing are produced for every 100 households formed; this disparity results in a low vacancy rate, raises housing costs and contributes to high rents and cost burdening (Tapogna & Baron, 2019). There is evidence that Portland is beginning to rebalance its housing supply and demand as an increasing amount of housing (particularly multifamily units) is being built. However, this trend has not extended to other parts of the state (Lehner, 2019b), and there are early reports that widespread wildfires have destroyed already scarce affordable housing in some communities.
Homelessness in Oregon has declined since the Great Recession, but our homeless population remains disproportionately high. Counter to public perception, the severity of homelessness is due in larger part to housing affordability than to personal circumstances (Tapogna & Baron, 2019). According to the Oregon Department of Education (ODE), more than 22,200 Oregon students experienced homelessness during the 2018–2019 school year (ODE, 2019; see Figure 5).
FIGURE 4: MORE THAN 1 IN 3 OREGONIANS SPEND TOO MUCH ON MONTHLY HOUSING COSTS. Percentage of people who spend more than 30% of monthly income on housing expenses.
Though rural households have lower housing costs than urban ones, they are often cost-burdened in other ways. For instance, higher costs are associated with traveling long distances to work, school or grocery stores (Partridge, 2017). Low-income rural households face economic and housing instability that translates into high residential mobility, with families often moving to other high-poverty communities (Scally & Posey, 2017). While housing costs are generally lower, rural communities have more limited access to credit than urban areas. Rural homes are also more likely to be in need of repairs just to meet health and safety standards (Johnston, 2017).
Access to affordable housing— including rental housing, homeownership, and capital to improve housing— ensures that people have stable living situations and can invest in their families, health and education. Housing stability fosters healthy communities that support social networks and vibrant civic, social, cultural and religious institutions. Homeownership can foster a sense of stability, security and belonging within a neighborhood and community. It is also one of three key factors in creating familial wealth, along with inheritance and income (Curry-Stevens et al., 2010).
SOCIAL CAPITAL & BELONGING
Social ties facilitate opportunity.
At the community level, individual relationships are woven together into networks of trust; these connections are known as social capital. By strengthening individual relationships and networks, building social capital can create a sense of belonging where individuals feel welcomed, understood and valued within a community. A strong sense of connection makes communities and individual residents more resilient (Aldrich & Meyer, 2015). Social capital comes from neighborhoods, communities and inherited networks; institutions and interventions like schools, colleges, programs and mentors can help build social capital for individuals.
FIGURE 5: NEARLY 4% OF K-12 STUDENTS IN OREGON ARE HOMELESS. K-12 homeless students as a percentage of total enrollment by county, 2018–2019.
Social networks facilitate the exchange of information and in-kind services, opening doors and mobilizing the resources that individuals, families and communities need (Boivin & Hertzman, 2012). Social ties within networks lend credibility to individuals and create shared access to the network’s collective resources; a central element of social capital is investing in relationships without expectation of financial return (Brisson & Usher, 2005).
Compared to middle- and high-income people, low-income people’s social ties are more likely to be confined to the communities in which they live, making them more dependent on neighborhood social networks for information, services and support (Turner & Gourevitch, 2017).
Lack of social capital hinders economic mobility. If people and neighborhoods are socially and politically isolated from those with power, their voices are less likely to be heard, their needs are less likely to be addressed, and their ability to shape citywide decisions about policies and practices that influence their lives is limited (Benner & Pastor, 2015).
Communities without political and market power often have less access to quality services and amenities like schools, preschools and grocery stores; this trend can be reinforcing and cyclical (Turner & Gourevitch, 2017). Social and political isolation and lack of social capital are especially damaging for communities of color. Research shows that because African Americans in high poverty neighborhoods are more socially isolated, they have less access to resources through their networks (Tigges et al., 2008).
Social capital in Oregon is strong but not evenly spread.
Overall, measures of social capital appear strong in Oregon. Nationally, almost all Oregon counties rank in the top 50% of counties using a social capital index that accounts for voter turnout, census response rates, nonprofit organizations, and the number of clubs, associations and other membership organizations per capita (see Figure 6).
FIGURE 6 EASTERN OREGON COUNTIES TEND TO HAVE HIGHER RATES OF SOCIAL CAPITAL. Social capital index ranking out of 3,141 U.S. counties, with lower numbers indicating stronger social capital.
A 2017 survey from DHM Research found that most Oregonians trust people in their community. It also found that most Oregonians think that they and people like them can have a “big” or “moderate” impact on their community. This was consistent across age groups, incomes and political party membership. Those who believe that they can make a difference are more likely to rate their community as a good place to live and as a place where they want to stay.
This widespread belief in making a difference seems to translate into action: Oregon has the third-highest volunteer rate in the nation, with 43% of Oregonians giving their time to causes they care about (Corporation for National and Community Service, 2018).
Religious adherence and church attendance can also signal the presence of social capital and are particularly salient measures for rural communities. In rural counties nationally, the rate of religious adherence is 24 percentage points higher in higher-mobility (71%) than in low-mobility areas (47%) (Krause & Reeves, 2017). In Oregon, 29% of residents reported going to church once a week, which is lower than the national average of 36%. One-third of Oregonians attend church one or two times a month or a few times a year, which is equal to the national average (Pew Research Center, 2014). Religiosity varies geographically; Eastern Oregonians are far more likely to consider themselves “very religious” than Oregonians in other regions (Silverman, 2013).
Connection, trust and civic engagement are not experienced in the same way by all Oregonians. Individuals who are friends with community leaders are likely to be wealthier and more educated than those who are not (DHM Research, 2017). Rates of voting, volunteering and other forms of civic engagement are correlated with education, income and race.
People in rural areas are widely thought to be more subject to social isolation and loneliness due to their physical distance from others. In fact, according to a recent study of adults over 65, white rural residents experience less isolation and have more social relationships than their urban counterparts, as well as a greater reliance on family and friends and a higher likelihood of being married (Henning-Smith et al., 2019). This does not hold true for Black people in rural areas, who are 4 times more likely to report being lonely than white residents.
Employment rates matter for opportunity.
Economic mobility is tied less to whether jobs are available and more to whether community members are employed (Chetty et al., 2018). OI found that community employment rates correlate positively with the economic mobility of children in that community.
Researchers found no association between economic mobility and job density, job growth or wage growth within that community. In other words, communities may have high rates of economic growth or a plethora of jobs, but if jobs are not available or accessible to people within that community, they will not experience economic mobility. Often, this happens because new people are brought in to fill new positions or industries (Chetty et al., 2018).
People living in high-poverty urban or rural communities often lack access to stable and living wage jobs (Scally & Posey, 2017). Lack of access to quality jobs is attributable to three primary causes: People do not know about or cannot get access to opportunities (social isolation), people do not have the necessary skills or credentials to qualify (lack of education and training), or commuting to jobs is too time-consuming and costly (lack of physical access) (Turner et al., 2014). In neighborhoods where few residents have well-paying jobs, residents are less likely to hear about openings. They are also less likely to know employed people who can vouch for their reliability and character to a potential employer (Turner & Gourevitch, 2017).
Transportation is vital to connect communities and individuals to opportunities, and particularly to connect communities with few economic opportunities to areas with more and better jobs. Frequent, safe and reliable public transit is key for under resourced communities to access economic opportunities. It takes people without access to cars or reliable public transit much longer to reach work. Long commutes also mean that residents from low income communities have fewer hours to spend working and fewer hours with their families before and after work (Pendall et al., 2016).
Rural people in poverty are geographically and technologically isolated, often lacking services needed to obtain or access jobs, such as public transportation or broadband access. These limitations mean that building opportunity in rural places can be challenging and that accessing opportunities may require moving out of the community (Partridge, 2017).
Employment and earnings prospects are uneven across Oregon.
In 2019, Oregon enjoyed near record-low underemployment, and unemployment was at its lowest level in more than a decade. However, most of this progress was erased in early 2020 when stayat-home orders to stop the spread of COVID-19 resulted in the loss of 270,000 jobs in March and April. Low-wage workers were hit especially hard, with those earning less than $20 an hour accounting for 66% of unemployment claims filed in the first 12 weeks of the pandemic (Runberg, 2020).
While much of the initial job loss appears to be temporary — the state had added back about 44% of lost jobs by August 2020 — the persistently high unemployment rate points to more permanent job loss and a longer road to recovery. Low-wage jobs have seen the most growth; middle-wage jobs have shown modest growth, and high-wage jobs have remained stagnant (Lehner, 2020b).
Regardless of the overall economic outlook, Black and Latino workers earn less than white workers at all levels of educational attainment. In the Metro Portland area, white people have a higher median wage and are overrepresented in professional and managerial positions. People of color are overrepresented in lower-paying production, transportation and service industry positions (CurryStevens et al., 2010). These trends hold statewide, with lower median household incomes seen for all communities of color except Asians (see Figure 7). Moreover, the unemployment rate is higher for Oregonians of color than whites (Mechling, 2019).
These persistent racial disparities in income and economic opportunity reflect employment discrimination; racially homogeneous social and professional networks; differential access to high-quality K-12 education and selective colleges; other forms of institutional racism and discrimination; and historical advantages for whites (Carnevale et al., 2019b).
Due to the suburbanization of jobs and the decline in manufacturing employment, many rural and urban neighborhoods have become physically isolated from employment opportunities (Turner & Gourevitch, 2017). The economic history of rural Oregon has always been tied to natural resources, fishing, farming and ranching. For generations, no industry was more closely tied to rural Oregon than timber. From the 1950s to the 1980s, employment in the timber industry accounted for 70,000 to 80,000 jobs at any given time, with wages far above the statewide average. These numbers dropped after the 1980s recession and fell further as a result of restrictions placed on federal lands in the 1990s. This hit rural Oregon particularly hard.
Local governments and communities have weathered the effects of lower revenues from timber harvests. Timber once accounted for 20% to 30% of jobs in Southern and Eastern Oregon. Now, many fewer jobs are available in the industry. There has been an accompanying relative decline in wages for more than 30 years due to increases in competition, productivity, automation and standardization (Lehner, 2012; 2017; 2019a). Measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 further impacted employment in rural Oregon, especially along the North Coast and Columbia Gorge; as of July 2020, the number of jobs was at the same level seen in the depths of the Great Recession (Lehner, 2020a).
Quality schools are critical for opportunity
Education is a substantial contributor to economic mobility. School quality is responsible for about half of the differences in economic mobility across neighborhoods within the same county (Chetty et al., 2018).
Particularly for low-income children, home and school environments have a significant impact on educational attainment and may even be more important than a student’s innate abilities (Carnevale et al., 2019a). Definitions of school quality vary but can include class size, per-pupil spending, and teachers’ training, experience and level of support (Chetty et al., 2014).
Even for a young student, the impacts of school quality can last into adulthood. According to one longitudinal study, students who receive a higher-quality education (defined in the study as smaller classes with more experienced teachers) from kindergarten through third grade are more likely to attend college, achieve higher earnings and have other improved outcomes by age 27 (Chetty et al., 2011).
School quality and funding levels vary across communities. When a high-quality education is only available to some, it reinforces and widens existing opportunity and achievement gaps. Funding for public schools has traditionally come largely from local tax revenue. Wealthier communities have a larger property tax base — and often, higher tax rates — which is responsible for many of the disparities in per-student expenditures and school quality across neighborhoods (Chetty & Friedman, 2012).
Low-income students in particular benefit from well-resourced schools. Increases in per-student spending result in more educational attainment, higher earnings and lower rates of adult poverty for low-income students (Jackson et al., 2015).
Oregon voters limited property taxes for schools when they passed Measure 5 in 1990. As a result, non grant state funding increased from 30% of total school funds to 67% as of the 2017–19 biennium (Oregon Audits Division, 2019). Around the same time, the legislature adopted an “equalization” formula to make total student expenditures (state and property tax amounts) more equal between districts (Oregon Audits Division, 2019). While Oregon school districts have limited control over revenue, they have much more control over how money is allocated and spent across schools. Funding among schools is not always equitable. One study found that 172 Title I schools in Oregon are inequitably funded compared to non-Title I schools (Hanna et al., 2015). Title I schools have larger concentrations of low-income students, and the same study found that 20% of low-income students attend inequitably funded schools. This problem is widespread in our state; 81% of school districts include inequitably funded schools.
Students of color are more likely to attend high poverty schools.
Nationally, students of color are much more likely to attend high-poverty schools compared to white students (McFarland et al., 2019). When children of color are concentrated in high-poverty schools, achievement gaps are bigger and grow faster between elementary and middle school. Students in high-poverty schools are more likely to be taught by less experienced and less qualified teachers. Teacher turnover is also higher at high-poverty schools, and parents may be less likely to have social, political and economic power that could benefit the school and its students (Reardon et al., 2019).
When combined with other policies and practices that create or perpetuate Oregon’s racial opportunity gap — including disproportionate discipline against children of color, the misrepresentation and omission of communities of color from curricula, and a lack of teachers and administrators of color — school segregation makes it even more difficult for students of color to achieve academic success. Ultimately, students of color in Oregon are less likely to graduate high school than white students (see Figure 8).
Rural schools face additional challenges when it comes to quality.
There are differences in student achievement between rural and urban Oregon. In rural areas, there is a strong correlation between household income and student achievement. However, the issue becomes more complex when data are disaggregated. Low-income students in rural Oregon perform similarly to their low-income peers in urban and suburban areas. The largest gap is between middle-class rural students and their urban and suburban peers: Middle-class rural students have markedly lower achievement (Chalkboard Project et al., 2016).
While some rural students are experiencing success and better than average graduation rates, educational attainment is generally lower in rural Oregon than in urban areas of the state. Some challenges in rural education reflect issues of isolation and distance. Schools in rural Oregon consistently report higher rates of absenteeism; more than 20% of rural students are chronically absent.
Some evidence suggests that this may relate to poverty and other socioeconomic factors, transportation challenges, and the limited services available in rural communities (e.g., the need to leave the community to receive health care) (Chalkboard Project et al., 2016).
School quality is especially important to economic mobility in rural communities (Krause & Reeves, 2017). In rural counties where young people are advancing economically, students express a strong sense of direction and consider education a tool for career development in a specific field. Teachers and families expect that students will pursue postsecondary education, and there is less stigma about attending a community college or vocational school. In some rural places, explicit connections to future careers are made as early as elementary school (McKeag et al., 2018).
The benefits of higher education are less accessible for some Oregonians.
Higher education is associated with significantly higher rates of upward mobility (Sawhill & Reeves, 2016). In Oregon, education accounts for about one-quarter of the variation in income, and each year of education increases hourly earnings by 10% (Kinder, 2019). However, research shows that translating higher educational attainment into socioeconomic opportunity and greater lifetime earnings is disproportionately skewed in favor of whites. In other words, higher education attainment is not as beneficial for persons of color (Jones & Schmitt, 2014).
Moreover, an estimated 500 rural Oregon students per year do not enroll in postsecondary education because of a lack of exposure to college. The average student in rural Oregon lives about 30 miles from a community college, 35 miles from the nearest college and 45 miles from the nearest four-year public university. By contrast, the average urban or suburban student lives within 10 miles of postsecondary opportunities (Chalkboard Project et al., 2016).