Children from poor families growing up in rural areas were less likely to be in prison by their late 20s and early 30s, according to a massive study conducted by economists at Harvard University.

Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren and a team of statisticians conducted this complicated study. Using Census information and tax returns, they tracked the cohort of people born in the United States between 1978 and 1983. The economists were able to gather information on 94 percent of the children born in that period, or 20 million people.

Chetty and Hendren tracked those children over the ensuing decades. They could determine the composition of their homes (their income and whether a father and a mother were present). They could see where these children lived. And on April 1, 2010, the economists counted how many of those 20 million people were locked up in jails, prisons or any kind of detention facility. These children would have grown to be between 27 and 32 years old.

Chetty and Hendren are primarily concerned with children who grow up in poor families. They have previously found that where a poor child grows up has an impact on his or her income later in life. Some places are good for children, and others places have a detrimental impact.

In general, rural communities are good places for children in poor families to be reared. They earn higher incomes than those who grow up in central cities because of the effects of growing up in rural communities.

In their study of incarceration rates, the Harvard team concentrates on males growing up in poor families. Female incarceration rates are low and relatively uniform across races and places.

Male incarceration rates vary widely, particularly by race. One out of five black males who grew up in the poorest families was in jail in 2010. Only 6.4 percent of young white males in the bottom 1 percent of income were incarcerated, however.

Men who grew up in rural counties (two sets of columns on the right) are less likely to be incarcerated. The rate of incarceration for white and Hispanic men is relatively stable across all types of counties. Nearly all the geographic difference is from African-American incarceration rates. Photo: Daily Yonder/Data: Equality of Opportunity Project

Incarceration rates also vary by where a child grew up. In the chart above, we show the percentage of males born between 1978 and 1983 who were in some kind jail on April 1, 2010. We divide this group by race (white, black and Hispanic) and by where these young men were reared.

On the far left of the chart are the results from the most urban counties, those in the central cities of metro areas of more than a million people. On the far right, you can see the incarceration rates for young men in poor families who grew up in the most rural counties.

Generally, as places become less urban, the percentage of people incarcerated goes down.

The incarceration rate for young men reared in the most urban counties is 36 percent higher than the rate for men who grew up in the most rural counties. The rate for young black men who grew up in urban centers is 20 percent higher than for those who spent their youth in the most rural counties.

(Note that the chart refers only to where the individual grew up, not to where he lived when he was sent to jail.)

This result roughly follows what Chetty and Hendren found in terms of place and income. “For both blacks and whites, rates of upward mobility are highest for children who grow up in the Great Plains and the coasts and lowest in parts of the industrial Midwest,” they write in a 2018 paper.

Place matters, Chetty and Hendren find, both for income and for rates of incarceration. The two economists show “that black boys who move to better areas (as measured by the outcomes of other black residents) earlier in their childhood have higher incomes and lower rates of incarceration in adulthood.”

What makes a difference in the lives of young men? “We conclude that neighborhoods with low poverty rates, high rates of father presence among blacks, and low levels of racial bias among whites have better outcomes for black boys and smaller racial gaps,” Chetty and Hendren write. The problem, however, is that “very few black children grow up in such environments.”

Less than 5 percent of black children grow up in places where the poverty rate is below 10 percent and more than half of black fathers are present. In contrast, 63 percent of white children grow up in places where poverty rates are below 10 percent and where more than half of white fathers are present.

The Harvard team has not studied the rural and urban difference in incarceration rates.

This story was originally published by the Daily Yonder.