In the United States, low-income people are not evenly distributed across the rural-urban landscape. Does this phenomenon partly reflect that people who "choose" to live in rural areas have unmeasured attributes related to poverty? To address this question, I use data from nine waves of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) to track economic well-being and rural/urban residential choice among a sample of 6,461 householders. A series of multivariate regression models are estimated in which the dependent variable is a householder's income to need and explanatory variables are individual attributes and place-level factors, including whether the county of residence is nonmetropolitan (nonmetro). First I estimate an ordinary least squares (OLS) model which excludes educational attainment variables. I then estimate an OLS model with controls for education. Finally, I estimate an individual fixed-effects regression model that controls for observed education and unobserved income capacity. I find that the effect on income to need of living in a nonmetro area is reduced substantially as more stringent controls for individual heterogeneity are implemented. Specifically, the first regression shows that nonmetro householders have income to need that is 26 percent lower than metro householders. The fixed-effects specification, by contrast, indicates a rural-urban gap in economic well-being of only 7 percent. Taken together, results suggest that one explanation for the higher incidence of poverty in rural than urban areas is that people with personal attributes associated with having low income tend to sort themselves into rural places.


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