4-H Has Figured Out Why Some Rural Communities Offer More Opportunity to the Young

4-H: Man in plaid shirt working on tablet in front of wheat field.



According to the math, I should be living in poverty today. Born in South Baltimore General Hospital to first-generation high school graduates with family roots in Webster County, W. Va., and Accomack County, Va., the light of opportunity did not shine brightly for me.

From an economic standpoint today, youth born to parents at the bottom of the income ladder tend to stay there. In fact, 43% of children born to parents in the lowest income quintile remain stuck at the bottom. For youth of color, the outlook is even more grim, with 70% of African American youth who are born into the middle class (not poverty, as I was) moving down the income ladder by the time they reach adulthood. While race and income have long been barometers of a child’s economic trajectory, the ability of youth to climb the economic ladder also varies widely by geography.

With a geographic scope that includes every county in America, 4-H seeks to improve how the national Cooperative Extension system can better impact the millions of youth it serves. By harnessing the collective strength and energy of 3,500 extension agents and 500,000 volunteers, 4-H aims to increase social mobility and equity through individual communities where positive changes fuel possibilities and the ability to climb the economic ladder.

4-H is partnering with Bridgespan to identify the factors that contribute to this most pressing challenge and support 4-H’s efforts in helping young people build brighter futures. In our report, “Social Mobility in Rural America,” we particularly wanted to know the answer to this question: What are the circumstances in high-opportunity, rural communities that help young people advance economically?

Rural America contains areas with very high and very low economic opportunity. Right away, tremendous variation among the selected 19 rural communities surfaced in the report. Rural America is not monolithic. Even with the rich diversity found across these rural communities, common threads arose.

The first phase of the study presented rural regions of high opportunity where economic mobility is soaring. Learning why from youth and adults took the team to settings as varied as high school classrooms, libraries, local diners, grocery stores and courthouses to pig farms, grain elevators and Native American reservations.

Working from the Equality of Opportunity data, Bridgespan’s experience and our extensive network of local communities launched a journey of discovery that, while focused on rural bright spots, shines light on six keys to success applicable to any community.

Building life skills, career pathways

Beginning with high expectations and rigorous support systems to ensure youth opt in provides a solid foundation for youth seeking the sense of belonging, relationships and achievement that can help youth climb the income ladder. At the Spearman, Texas, high school, 260 of 266 students participated in at least one after-school activity. The connections and skills built during these experiences prepare youth for a bright future, while also instilling the power of possibility that comes with doing, making and trying new activities.

4-H: Rebecca Kelley (headshot), director of development, foundations for National 4-H Council, smiling woman with widow’s peak, red scarf, blue and white patterned top

Rebecca Kelley

Early focus on career pathways infuse youth activities with a sense of purpose where education is not an abstraction, but a valued tool for career development. Some communities turn their challenges into assets as they provide youth with creative solutions for accessing opportunities to build life skills. Randolph, Nebraska’s high school offers a four-day school week, a cost-saving mechanism for the district that also frees up time for out-of-school time learning: gaining financial literacy and management skills through seminars, using remote learning to access online Spanish courses or attending Northeast Community College’s Extended Campus, for “Fridays at Northeast.”

While broadband access emerged as a vital infrastructure need for youth and adults alike, financial and transportation barriers to out-of-school time participation are spurring communities to overcome access challenges through efforts that would gain a tip of the hat from De Tocqueville. In response, Redwood Falls, Minn., is experimenting with a bus that shuttles between many of the key community hubs.

Concerned about college access, residents of Gruver, Texas, united to create the Gruver Farm Scholarship Foundation by investing $500,000 in funds from an annual voluntary corn harvest from the school’s 410 acres of farmland (also donated). With students earning scholarships based on academics, extracurricular achievements and participation and other measures, the foundation desires to provide every Gruver graduate with a four-year scholarship to pay for college tuition and fees.

The final factor features the sense of shared fate felt within these communities. In economic terms, supporting skill development of young people is important “supply-side” work. Communities in the study also paid attention to the all-important “demand side,” too, by directly investing in career connections, building bridges to returning young entrepreneurs and creating attractive towns that welcome back youth and families.

As Karen Pittman of the Forum for Youth Investment observes in the report’s foreword, she finds potential for these six factors to lift up every community, envisioning places in which “Every young person is known. Every young person is needed. Every adult can play a role. Every opportunity matters. No offer of support is too small.” While recognizing racial and class divides and external constraints persist, this report brings hope to do better for all youth.

“Making greater and more effective investments in children and youth will be the best way to improve social mobility throughout the nation,” note Brookings Institution scholars Bruce Katz and Ross Tilchin in “Investing in the next generation: A Bottom-Up Approach to Creating Better Outcomes for Children and Youth.”

Reflecting on my own experiences, I found these six factors affecting upward mobility to be real influences. From elementary and secondary school principals who took time to personally engage with students to a county government that invested in youth voice and parent-teacher organizations that welcomed youth voice in school decisions, my community provided opportunity for me to become a first-generation college graduate and attorney committed to growing true leaders across America. What about you?

Rebecca Kelley currently serves with the National 4-H Council’s Resource Development team supporting the growth of capacity-building and strategic initiatives in partnership with Cooperative Extension at more than 110 land grant universities. She earned a B.A. in politics and public policy from Goucher College in Baltimore and a law degree from University of Cincinnati College of Law.  


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