Social Mobility in Rural America

By Mark McKeag, Mike Soskis, Luis Ramos & Bill Breen in collaboration with National 4‑H Council and the Cooperative Extension System of our nation’s land-grant universities

An essential, animating feature of America’s identity is the notion that if you work hard, a better economic future awaits. While often an aspiration rather than a reality for recent generations, that widely held belief is increasingly evading the nation’s young people.

When we began our collaboration with The Bridgespan Group to study this important issue, we wanted to know: What are the circumstances in high opportunity, rural communities that help young people advance economically?

This report explores areas in rural America where upward mobility is thriving, seeking a close-up view in a handful of rural communities where young people continue to make their way up the income ladder.


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Mark McKeag is a partner, Mike Soskis is a manager, Luis Ramos is a senior associate consultant, and Bill Breen is an editorial director in Bridgespan’s Boston office.

The authors would like to thank the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy and USDA NIFA for their support of this work, as well as Cooperative Extension leaders from the following universities for their collaboration throughout the process: University of Nebraska, University of Minnesota, Texas A&M, North Dakota State University, West Virginia University, Alcorn State University, Louisiana State University and University of California. 

The authors also thank the following state and county 4‑H professionals for their help arranging and coordinating site visits: in Minnesota, Jaime Sorenson, Stacy Johnson, Crystal Reith, Dorothy Freeman; in North Dakota, Dena Kemmet, Craig Askim, Calandria Jarboe, Kurt Froelich, Brad Cogdill; in Texas, Whitley Gammill, Scott Strawn, Courtney Dodd; and in Nebraska, Jackie Steffen and Kathleen Lodl.

In addition, we thank the Southern Rural Development Center and the 4‑H Access, Equity and Belonging Committee for their guidance and expertise in the development of this piece. We also thank Dreama Gentry, Nan Stone, Debby Bielak and Devin Murphy for their invaluable feedback and thought partnership.

Support for this report was provided in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation. 

About the Bridgespan Group

The Bridgespan Group is a global nonprofit organization that collaborates with mission-driven leaders, organizations, philanthropists, and investors to break cycles of poverty and dramatically improve the quality of life for those in need. With offices in Boston, Mumbai, New York, and San Francisco, Bridgespan’s services include strategy consulting, leadership development, philanthropy and nonprofit advising, and developing and sharing practical insights.

About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

For more than 45 years the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has worked to improve health and health care. We are working alongside others to build a national Culture of Health that provides everyone in America a fair and just opportunity for health and well-being. For more information, visit Follow the Foundation on Twitter at or on Facebook at