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Daniel T. Lichter, Domenico Parisi, and Michael C. Taquino

Topic: Geographic Mobility and Immobility among the Rural Poor: Rural Areas as Collecting Grounds for America’s Poor?


Have America’s rural areas become a new “collecting grounds” for the poor and other impoverished minority and immigrant groups?  Historically, rural areas, both in the United States and Europe, have experienced chronic outmigration of the “best and brightest,” including highly educated and skilled young people.  The clear implication is that spatial inequality nationally has accelerated, leaving behind rural people in a rapidly globalizing economy.  Indeed, a recent paper by Theide, Kim, and Valasik (2018) reported substantial post-2000 increases in concentrated rural poverty, measured by increases in the number of high-poverty counties and the share of the population living in these counties.  The demographic processes responsible for new patterns of concentrated poverty, however, are less clearly understand.

Previous studies have focused primarily on selective out-migration from rural areas. In this study, we focus on migration both into and out of rural counties, including counties with disproportionately high poverty rates (i.e., over 30 percent).  Our fundamental goal is to shift the usual focus from selective rural out-migration to rural in-migration from urban areas.  Theoretically, we draw on a large urban residential attainment literature which has focused overwhelmingly on the residential mobility of minority populations into predominately white or middle-class neighborhoods (as measured by median income, housing values, or low crime rates).  In this paper, we shift attention to rural areas.  Specifically, we ask (1) whether new rural in-migrants from urban areas are disproportionately poor and economically disadvantaged; and (2) whether rural out-migrants are disproportionately drawn from non-poor and economically advantaged (e.g., as measured by education) populations.

To accomplish our goals, we use up-to-date and newly available proprietary household data from the Panel Survey of Income Dynamics (PSID) linked with population data at the county level.  We nest poor rural people within counties that vary over time along a number of ecological and social demographic indicators, including urbanicity, poverty rates and other indicators of local economic disadvantage, including unemployment, welfare participation, and female headship) from the U.S. decennial Censuses and the American Community Survey.

Unlike most previous studies based on cross-sectional (post-migration) data from the Current Population Survey, Decennial Censuses, or American Community Survey, the PSID allows us to measure both pre- and post-migration poverty among movers.  These baseline estimates of poverty are then compared with poverty rates among stayers.   Unlike previous studies, we identify flows or streams of migration, focusing in particular on both the origin and destination of poor and non-poor movers.  We identify movements between metropolitan and nonmetropolitan counties, as well as between economically-diverse and heterogeneous nonmetropolitan counties (e.g., micropolitan and non-core counties).

More broadly, our study provides empirical evidence of the rural-urban interface (Lichter and Brown 2011), i.e., how systems of inter-county migration between urban and rural areas contribute to growing spatial interdependence and economic inequality in America.

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