Cover image for Economic Restructuring and Family Well-Being in Rural America Edited by Kristin E. Smith and Ann R. Tickamyer

Economic Restructuring and Family Well-Being in Rural America

Edited by Kristin E. Smith and Ann R. Tickamyer


$94.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-04861-1

$39.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-04862-8

416 pages
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Rural Studies

Economic Restructuring and Family Well-Being in Rural America

Edited by Kristin E. Smith and Ann R. Tickamyer

“This is a timely and important book on a very underresearched and misunderstood topic. As numerous others point out, ‘rural’ America is not just farms and rural areas, and its problems are not all that different in some fundamental ways from urban ones. This book should be required reading for anyone interested in better understanding how global economic changes have affected not only jobs but, crucially, the people who hold them, the places they live, the people they live with. The book will be of interest to academics and nonacademics alike. Policy makers would be particularly well advised to learn from its rich empirical analysis and thoughtful discussion.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Rural areas have been hit hard by economic restructuring. Traditionally male jobs with good pay and benefits (such as in manufacturing) have declined dramatically, only to be replaced with low-paying service-oriented jobs—jobs that do not offer benefits or wages sufficient to raise a family. Concurrently, rural areas have experienced changes in family life, namely an increase in women’s labor force participation, a decline in married-couple families, and a rise in cohabitation and single-parent families. How have rural families coped with these social and economic changes? Economic Restructuring and Family Well-Being in Rural America documents the intertwined changes in employment and family and explores the outcomes for family well-being in rural America. Here a multidisciplinary group of scholars examines the impacts of economic restructuring on rural Americans and provides policy recommendations for addressing the challenges they face.

In addition to the editors, the contributors are Cynthia D. Anderson, Guangqing Chi, Alisha Coleman-Jensen, Katherine Jewsbury Conger, Nicole D. Forry, Deborah Roempke Graefe, Steven Michael Grice, Andrew Hahn, Debra Henderson, Eric B. Jensen, Leif Jensen, Marlene Lee, Daniel T. Lichter, Elaine McCrate, Diane K. McLaughlin, Margaret K. Nelson, Domenico Parisi, Liliokanaio Peaslee, Jed Pressgrove, Jennifer Sherman, Anastasia Snyder, Susan K. Walker, and Chih-Yuan Weng.

“This is a timely and important book on a very underresearched and misunderstood topic. As numerous others point out, ‘rural’ America is not just farms and rural areas, and its problems are not all that different in some fundamental ways from urban ones. This book should be required reading for anyone interested in better understanding how global economic changes have affected not only jobs but, crucially, the people who hold them, the places they live, the people they live with. The book will be of interest to academics and nonacademics alike. Policy makers would be particularly well advised to learn from its rich empirical analysis and thoughtful discussion.”
“This volume is a benchmark on responses to economic change in the United States. The editors have done a masterful job in showcasing a breadth of scholarship, reflected collectively in the contributing authors’ interdisciplinary approaches, attention to an array of family, demographic, and economic outcomes, and concern with theoretical as well as policy-related issues. The chapters combine rigorous analysis and detailed implications for public policy in a lucid manner that will be accessible to a variety of audiences. In confronting and comparing rural responses with those documented in urban settings, the chapters provide an innovative corrective to conventional work in sociology, family studies, demography, economics, and policy studies.”
“While the troubles facing the banking and housing sectors have served as the focal points of our nation’s economic woes, it’s around the kitchen tables of many rural American families where the pain and strain have been profoundly felt. Regrettably, efforts to examine the multifaceted consequences of economic restructuring on family well-being have been virtually absent—until now. Assembling a veritable ‘who’s who’ among social and behavioral scientists, Smith and Tickamyer have guided the development of an impressive research volume that offers important insights into the array of family-related challenges playing in rural America today as a product of national and global economic forces. The value-added aspect of this volume is the attention that it devotes to policy—to the mix of investments and refinements that policy makers must pursue in order to promote the stability and the long-term vitality of families in rural America.”

Kristin E. Smith is a family demographer at the Carsey Institute and Research Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of New Hampshire.

Ann R. Tickamyer is Professor and Head, Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, The Pennsylvania State University.


List of Figures

List of Maps

List of Tables


Cynthia “Mil” Duncan



Kristin E. Smith and Ann Tickamyer

Section 1: Changing Economic Opportunities and Changing Roles

1 Rural Economic Restructuring: Implications for Children, Youth, and Families

Daniel T. Lichter and Deborah Roempke Graefe

2 Employment Hardship Among Rural Men

Leif Jensen and Eric B. Jensen

3 Changing Roles: Women and Work in Rural America

Kristin E. Smith

4 Men Without Sawmills: Job Loss and Gender Identity in Rural America

Jennifer Sherman

Section 2: Family Change, Economic Hardship, and Family Adaptive Strategies

5 Economic Restructuring and Family Structure Change, 1980 to 2000: A Focus on Female-Headed Families with Children

Diane K. McLaughlin and Alisha J. Coleman-Jensen

6 Patterns of Family Formation and Dissolution in Rural America and Implications for Well-Being

Anastasia Snyder

7 Job Characteristics and Economic Survival Strategies: The Effect of Economic Restructuring and Marital Status in a Rural County

Margaret K. Nelson

8 Economic Hardship, Parenting, and Family Stability in a Cohort of Rural Adolescents

Katherine Jewsbury Conger

Section 3: Low-Wage Employment

9 Parents’ Work Time in Rural America: The Growth of Irregular Schedules

Elaine McCrate

10 Low-Wage Employment Among Minority Women in Nonmetropolitan Areas: A Decomposition Analysis

Marlene Lee

11 Regional Variation of Women in Low-Wage Work Across Rural Communities

Cynthia D. Anderson and Chih-Yuan Weng

Section 4: Work and Family Policy

12 Strengthening Rural Communities Through Investment in Youth Education, Employment, and Training

Liliokanaio Peaslee and Andrew Hahn

13 Child Care in Rural America

Nicole D. Forry and Susan K. Walker

14 Health Insurance in Rural America

Deborah Roempke Graefe

15 Livelihood Practices in the Shadow of Welfare Reform

Ann Tickamyer and Debra Henderson

16 Poverty, Work, and the Local Environment: TANF and EITC

Domenico Parisi, Steven Michael Grice, Guangqing Chi, and Jed Pressgrove


Ann Tickamyer and Kristin E. Smith


List of Contributors



Kristin E. Smith and Ann Tickamyer

This book documents how family economic change has influenced family well-being in rural America. Rural areas have been hit hard by economic restructuring. Well-paying, traditionally male jobs with benefits (such as in manufacturing) have declined dramatically, only to be replaced with low-paying, service-oriented jobs—jobs that do not offer benefits or wages sufficient to raise a family. Even this type of employment is scarce in many remote rural areas, and with the advent of welfare reform, the safety net has also become frayed. The nature of rural economies and their dependence on a less diverse industrial structure make them particularly vulnerable to the negative economic and social consequences of economic restructuring, such as job loss, underemployment, and lowered earnings. Concurrently, rural areas have experienced changes in family life, including an increase in women’s labor force participation, a decline in married-couple families, and a rise in cohabitation and single-parent families. Now more than ever, social scientists need to provide context for the current economic troubles facing rural America and suggest policies for assisting rural people during these troubles.

Based on original research commissioned explicitly for this volume, each chapter sheds light on the neglected topic of how rural families fare in the face of economic turmoil and job loss, with a focus on policy. This volume is not an examination of economic change per se but of the consequences of this change for the men, women, and children who make up rural populations. A mix of quantitative and qualitative research methods, representing both large national data sets and regional and local case studies, it brings together different components of an underexplored but complex story of change, loss, and survival in rural America. It takes a comparative approach by analyzing rural-urban differences, while emphasizing rural people and places with in-depth analyses of uniquely rural issues and populations. It also looks at change over time, exploring ways that rural and urban areas have converged, or have not, and exploring the reasons why or why not. Written by a multidisciplinary group of leading experts in economics, demography, sociology, and policy analysis, and drawing on both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies, the essays in this volume inform policy in rural areas and set the stage for future research.

This volume brings together original, policy-relevant research on the state of families and their members in rural America at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Like the rest of the nation, rural areas have witnessed major social and economic upheavals over the past several decades that have had significant effects on the lives and livelihoods of their residents. Yet how these changes affect rural families and children, in contrast to those in urban and national settings, has received relatively little systematic analysis.

Our undergirding assumption is that economic conditions have a large effect on family well-being, coping strategies, and ultimately demographic change, and that these in turn shape and are shaped by policy responses. This book provides an understanding of how economic restructuring has affected rural families. Therefore, to lay the foundation for the more focused examination of effects, outcomes, and policies that follows in the subsequent chapters, we begin with an introduction to rural life and an overview of what restructuring has looked like in rural compared to urban America.

Next, in a general overview of the changes in the rural economy and concomitant changes in family life, we document how rural places have transitioned over the years. In the second and third section, we examine the responses of men, women, and families to these changes. Chapters in the second section focus on men’s employment hardship in rural areas, the rise in women’s employment and breadwinner status, and the different responses from men as they are not able to live up to the male breadwinner role. This section not only underscores gender differences and pays specific attention to women’s economic role in families, but also scrutinizes what economic restructuring and the concomitant changes it brings for family breadwinning roles mean for men. Chapters in the third section investigate the intersection of family change and economic hardship and the adaptive strategies families use to help make ends meet. The fourth section turns to characteristics of rural low-wage employment, including the work schedules of low-wage work and demographic and regional variations in low-wage rural workers, drawing connections to their implications for family and child well-being. A final section describes what policies and programs are available in rural areas and their efficacy in alleviating the detrimental effects of economic restructuring. The conclusion integrates the findings from these studies to provide a research and policy agenda for advancing the well-being of rural families and their members.

The Rural Labor Market

Understanding the changes in employment patterns due to economic restructuring in rural America is fundamental as it lays the foundation that the subsequent chapters build upon. The following analyses of Current Population Survey data from 1979 to 2007 consider changes in the rural, urban, and suburban job markets in three dimensions: (1) how jobs compare across the three geographic areas; (2) how jobs have changed over time in these three areas; and (3) whether rural job markets are relatively or absolutely worse off than the other areas.

Table I.1 shows changes in unemployment and employment rates by place for 1979 to 2007. Unemployment rates are highest in the central cities, followed closely by rural areas, and lowest in the suburban areas. Unemployment trends are fairly similar across place. Employment rates, however, reveal less of a trend in rural areas relative to the other areas, as they hover between 58 and 61 percent. This finding suggests that there is less robust labor market demand in rural relative to urban places.

Tables I.2 and I.3 examine the changing share of jobs held by workers by industry and occupation. Across the board, the share of workers in manufacturing jobs has declined and the share in services has increased. Table I.2 shows that differences in the shares of workers by industry are not very large, nor have they changed in particularly different ways. In rural, central city, and suburban areas, we see the shift from manufacturing jobs to services, though that shift has been somewhat attenuated in rural areas. For example, in suburban labor markets, manufacturing went from 27 percent of the workforce in 1979 to about 12 percent in 2007. That change represents a decline of about 15 percentage points, two-thirds of which occurred among durable (heavy equipment) manufacturers (we separate out the two components because there exists a wage premium for durable relative to nondurable manufacturing). In rural markets, the shift was smaller, a 12-percentage-point shift from 29 percent to 17 percent.

Occupational shifts (table I.3) were of similar magnitudes across the three areas, as the share of blue collar jobs fell and that of service and white collar jobs rose. As with industry, there are notable level differences, reflecting the industry-level differences above. Specifically, there are still more manufacturing jobs, and thus more blue collar workers, in rural places relative to urban or suburban.

Table I.4 shows hourly wage levels in 2007 dollars for workers age eighteen to sixty-four by location and by education level from 1979 to 2007. Average real wages, shown in the top panel, were flat for the “all” group (note that this group includes workers whose location is not identified) over the 1980s, rose fairly solidly in the 1990s, and rose considerably less so in the 2000s.

The major difference by place regarding these overall averages is that rural wages fell in real terms fairly steeply, by 7.7 percent, over the 1980s. As the last line of the first panel shows, urban workers earned, on average, 11 percent more than rural workers in 1979 and 22 percent in 2007, a doubling of the relative urban advantage. For suburban workers, the average premium rose from 23 percent to 33 percent. The earnings of rural workers are generally lower in both trend and level than those of urban or suburban workers.

This analysis suggests that the lower wages in rural areas relate to unfavorable levels and shifts in job structure (industries and occupation) relative to the other areas, and differences in educational attainment by place.

What effect do differences in industry composition by place have on wage levels and trends? A simple shift-share exercise as shown in table I.5 shows that regarding industry, these share differences have little effect on wage levels. The table uses information on industry shares and wage levels for 2007 to answer the questions (a) how would rural wages differ if the industry structure were different in rural areas, that is, were the same as in central cities or suburbs, and (b) how would urban and suburban wages differ if their wage levels were paired with the rural industry job structure.

The results show that rural wages would only be slightly higher (less than 1 percent) if the industry job structure were the same as that found in central city and suburban areas, and (lower panel) urban/suburban wages would be very slightly lower if those workers faced the rural industry structure. These results suggest that the lower rural wage is more a “within-cell,” or rural, phenomenon than one driven by a particularly downgraded industrial job structure.

Turning to differences due to education, the 1980s is widely recognized as a period when educational wage differentials—specifically, the wage premium for college relative to high school workers—grew sharply. As the last line in each section reveals in table I.4, this trend occurred in rural areas also, as the college/high school premium rose from 42 percent to 66 percent over these years. But the increase in the premium was much larger in urban and suburban areas, growing around 50 percentage points in both.

This result is partly driven by some surprising trend differences in rural versus other area wage trends. Over the 1980s, when real wage gains accrued exclusively to college workers, rural workers with college degrees experienced zero real gains. The college premium rose significantly for them nevertheless, since high school wages fell 12 percent. In the 1990s, a uniquely positive period for rural workers (and one we examine more closely below), gains for non–college-educated workers were particularly strong. Thus, the rural education differential did not grow as much as that of other places, for two reasons. First, college workers did not do as well in rural areas in the 1980s as they did in the other places, and second, non–college-educated workers did much better in rural areas in the 1990s.

Another way of stating this latter point is to note that wage inequality grew much less quickly among rural workers in the 1990s than among nonrural workers. Other research in the 1990s, such as Bernstein and Baker (2003), shows that the full-employment job market that prevailed in the latter years of that cycle was particularly helpful to the least advantaged workers. Previously, minority workers have been the focus of this work, but the 1989–2000 results reveal that rural workers also get a disproportionate boost from the job market in these years.

Table I.6 reveals an interesting difference between these three places regarding the education levels of the workforce. Overall, the rural workforce has a lower level of education than central city or suburban workforces. Over the past three decades, there has been a large shift from high school or less to some college or more, but the pattern of the shift has been somewhat unique in rural settings. In rural relative to central city and suburban places, there are many fewer high school dropouts—15 percentage points, compared to 8–9 points in the other areas—but there are also smaller gains among college graduates. The reason for this is a larger gain in the share of workers with some college but not a large gain for those receiving a four-year degree. In central city and suburban places the large gains were found among those receiving a college degree.

The difference in education level may also explain some of the unique challenges facing rural workers in today’s job market. Research has shown that in the 1990s and 2000s, employment and wage growth has been more robust at the low and high end of the educational distribution, with less favorable results for workers in the middle (see, for example, Autor, Katz, and Kearney 2006).

The main conclusion from this analysis of the changes in rural, central city, and suburban labor markets due to economic restructuring is that labor markets are just relatively less favorable in rural economies. Yes, there are somewhat more low-wage agriculture jobs in rural communities, but that is a small share of employment. The industry and occupational structures are more similar than different in rural, central city, and suburban places.

And yes, the educational distribution is less favorable—rural places have lower levels of college graduates and a slower trend in educational upgrading compared with other places. One could make an argument that prices are lower in rural areas, but this is likely to be canceled out by higher energy consumption in terms of variations in the cost of living. One important distinction, however, is that there is some evidence that employment growth has not been as strong in rural places, which can depress wages.

This analysis suggests that the quality of jobs, ceteris paribus, is lower in rural communities. Another issue is the quantity of jobs available in rural areas—wages did relatively well in rural areas during the 1990s boom. These findings do not point to a structural deficit or other problem with the rural labor market, but rather to wages being depressed by the number and the quality of jobs. One avenue to help raise wages in rural areas is investing in public infrastructure, with a strong rural component. Rural areas need good jobs and good multipliers from the earnings of workers in those jobs. Economic restructuring and globalization have decreased the quality of jobs in rural areas and in America altogether, and raising the demand for labor with good-quality jobs would go a long way in raising wages in rural America.

Continued educational upgrading in rural areas would also help to raise wages, but a concern here is that the workforce would be “all dressed up with nowhere to go.” This analysis does not indicate that there is a strong labor demand for skilled workers in rural places relative to urban and suburban places. The large relative share of workers with some college education in rural areas may suggest that jobs that require high education levels are not abundant in rural places.

With this understanding of the implications of economic restructuring in mind, we now turn to a discussion of the sections included in this book and the major findings from the chapters. This book explains how families have coped with these fundamental economic changes in how family economic life is organized. It documents a story of rural families rising above the adversity of economic restructuring in America.

How Has Family Life Changed in Rural America?

This volume begins with a look at rural families in a changing society. Rural families are coping with economic, social, and cultural change. A shift from agricultural and extractive production to lower-wage industries has occurred, with the result being that today “rural” is no longer equivalent to “farm.” In fact, only 10 percent of rural people live on farms. In chapter 1, Dan Lichter and Deborah Graefe set the stage by painting a picture of rural America today—economic restructuring continues to place pressure on the economic well-being of families; increased divorce, nonmarital childbearing, and cohabitation place rural children at a higher risk of poverty; and although an influx of immigrants and minorities has revitalized many small towns and rural places, it has raised concerns about racial relations, immigrant assimilation, and spending on new infrastructure.

Changing Economic Opportunities and Changing Roles

In chapter 2, Leif Jensen and Eric Jensen examine several indicators of employment hardship, including unemployment, underemployment, contingent work, and worker displacement. They compare these factors by place and gender from 1980 to 2006 and show that the picture is complex but that on balance the employment circumstances for rural men are less favorable than those of urban men, but more favorable than those of rural women. Rural men have lower labor force participation, higher unemployment, and higher underemployment than urban men. Worker displacement has declined to a larger extent for rural than urban men, such that from 1992 onward displacement rates were lower for rural men. Contingent work, a relatively uncommon form of employment hardship, was slightly lower among rural men. Jensen and Jensen show that rural women are disadvantaged compared with rural men, but that over time their circumstances have improved while the circumstances for rural men have worsened, resulting in a reduction in rural gender disparities.

A key question addressed is how families have responded to economic change. The restructuring of the rural economy has had lasting ramifications on how families organize their work and family lives. Economic restructuring has both pushed and pulled women into the paid labor market. As men’s jobs in traditional rural industries such as agriculture, natural resource extraction, and manufacturing declined, service sectors expanded, creating opportunities for women at the same time that households needed an additional wage earner to make ends meet. In chapter 3, Kristin Smith documents the rise in women’s employment and the narrowing of the gender gap in employment in both rural and urban areas. Large employment gains occurred among married women, single mothers, and women with higher levels of education in rural areas. Not only are rural married mothers more apt to work outside the home, their earnings have increased since 1969. This is noteworthy because rural married fathers’ earnings declined over the same time period, resulting in a larger economic provider role for married mothers. Even so, the earnings of rural families are lower than those of urban families, and growing at a slower pace, underscoring the rising inequality between rural and urban families. Given the growing number of families that depend on the earnings of women, Smith calls for policies that facilitate work and family (such as paid sick leave, family medical leave, and flexible work schedules) and increase earnings or supplement wages (such as raising the minimum wage or expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit).

In chapter 4, Jennifer Sherman digs deeper into how families cope with changing roles due to economic restructuring. Using ethnographic and interview data, she explores how structural and labor market transformations produce changes in gender norms and identities in a rural community that has historically been tied to a single industry, logging. Sherman finds that flexibility with regard to gender norms is key to creating stable relationships in a context of rapid and catastrophic economic collapse. For couples tied rigidly to traditional husband as breadwinner / wife as homemaker gender norms, when men cannot fulfill the economic provider role, they struggle with their inabilities to be the sole providers, creating tensions that often lead to relational instability. On the other hand, couples in which men are able to refocus their conceptions of masculinity on more attainable goals, such as active parenting, experience less strife and more personal and marital satisfaction. In light of these findings, Sherman argues that rural men are more flexible with regard to masculine identity than found by previous researchers, and that flexibility with regard to gender identities, as well as gender roles, is vital to sustaining stable families under conditions of rapid structural change.

Economic Hardship, Family Change, and Family Adaptive Strategies

The chapters in the next section address two main questions: how has economic restructuring contributed to family change, and what strategies do families employ to rise above the difficulties caused by economic restructuring? Economic restructuring has altered men’s and women’s roles in the economy, and in turn influenced family formation and stability across the United States. Economic downturns and job loss can make family life difficult and stressful, and these conditions may promote family instability or encourage marriage, or both. While Sherman’s chapter examines how economic restructuring and job loss among men leads couples to adapt their gender roles, chapters 5 through 8 examine the intersection of economic hardship and family change and the adaptive strategies families use to help make ends meet.

In chapter 5, Diane McLaughlin and Alisha Coleman-Jensen examine the relationship between economic restructuring and the change in prevalence of female-headed households with children from 1980 to 2000. To assess the influence of economic restructuring on the change in prevalence in single motherhood, they estimate weighted least squares regression models of change at the county level. They find that measures of economic restructuring are associated with a rise in single motherhood. Counties with economic restructuring that created poor-quality jobs and part-time work for men had larger growth in single motherhood. However, increases in part-time work for women were associated with slower growth in single-mother families. Growth in full-time jobs (which are more likely to offer better wages and benefits) contributed to more traditional family formation and stability. Further, counties with the highest prevalence of single-mother families also had the fastest growth in single-mother families, underscoring the need for improved or expanded services and programs in high-prevalence counties. They conclude that as U.S. policy makers consider ways to alleviate the negative ramifications of economic restructuring, they must consider men’s and women’s employment separately and craft policies that create good-quality, livable-wage jobs.

While McLaughlin and Coleman-Jensen show the link between economic restructuring and the destabilization of families on the county level, Anastasia Snyder in chapter 6 probes further by analyzing individual level data and focusing on rural women’s divorce and remarriage patterns to critically examine the role of marriage in rural women’s lives. Rural women are less likely to divorce, they are more likely to remarry after divorce and to remarry quicker. The end result is that rural women spend more of their lives married than women in central cities or suburbs. Snyder argues that rural women may have a preference for marriage in part because of the challenging economic context in which they reside and in part because of the tendency to hold more traditional family values. Rural single mothers face significant challenges providing for their families, thus the preference for marriage among rural women may be a family adaptive strategy to provide greater economic stability for themselves and their children while enabling the fulfillment of traditional family values.

One of the side effects of economic restructuring is that families have to adapt to the tougher economic times, they have to garner their resources and piece together elaborate and multifaceted survival strategies. In chapter 7, Margaret Nelson explores the survival strategies of low-income families in a rural county in Vermont as these are shaped by economic restructuring and marital status. Economic restructuring has resulted in a dichotomy between families in which at least one member holds a good job (defined as year-round, full-time employment in a firm that offers benefits) and families that rely exclusively on bad jobs. Nelson demonstrates that the relationship to the formal economy has consequences for the survival strategy of the family and for the capacity of parents to provide predictable lives for their children. Namely, families with a good job have higher wages, tend to rely on a dual-earner strategy, engage in self-provisioning, and barter with other households. They can do this in part because the good job is stable, has predictable hours, and has paid vacation or sick leave. Families with bad jobs are disadvantaged because the bad jobs impede the families’ collective ability to respond to family needs and to support a second worker. Further, differences exist between the survival strategies of single-parent and married-couple families, with varying consequences for children. Nelson concludes that increasing wages is important but not sufficient to self-sufficiency among low-income families. Increased access to workplace benefits and job flexibility—indeed, paid time off to respond to family needs—and continued state support are necessary as basic supports for working families.

In chapter 8, Katherine Jewsbury Conger addresses how economic hardship affects the health, well-being, and long-term marital outcomes of families who lived in the upper Midwest during the agricultural depression of the 1980s. Using the Family Stress Model, one of the primary theoretical models proposed to explain the connection between family economic circumstances and developmental changes in parents and their children, Conger shows how conditions of economic hardship, such as losing a job, affect parents’ psychological distress, contribute to cutting back on spending for household needs, and produce emotional distress. She argues that the dynamics of the romantic relationship predict whether a married couple will experience marital disruption when economic pressure and emotional distress combine. Husbands and wives who pull together and demonstrate high levels of social support and those who have effective couple problem solving had less marital conflict. In addition, economic pressure in families creates risk for adolescents. Conger concludes that by understanding the effect of economic hardship on marriages, parents, and their children, policies and programs can adequately address the multifaceted challenges families face when economic hardship hits.

Low-Wage Employment

A growing number of the jobs in rural America are low-wage, and a large proportion of the low-wage jobs are held by women. We learn from Nelson’s analysis in the previous section that some of the low-wage jobs are “good” jobs and some are not. In this section, attention turns to the characteristics of rural low-wage employment, including the work schedules of low-wage workers, and then more specifically to variations by race and ethnicity and region in low-wage rural female workers, drawing connections to their implications for family and child well-being.

Another side effect of economic restructuring is that more workers work in “bad” jobs where they do not have control over their work schedules and that they vary from day to day and week to week. As employers in several industries embark on aggressive strategies to cut costs and maximize revenue, just-in-time practices that match employees’ work hours to customers’ hours become more common. These changes in strategy typically mean that the work schedule is erratic and is not controlled by the employee. In chapter 9, Elaine McCrate takes a hard look at the work schedules of rural residents, examining the variability of work hours, and the flexibility and the amount of worker control over work schedules. Rural parents are more likely than urban parents to have schedules with starting and stopping times they do not control, including both jobs with rigid hours and jobs with variable hours. Single parents, who likely have the greatest need for job flexibility, are the least likely to have control over their work schedules, and rural single parents are less likely than their urban counterparts to have schedules that they control. This pattern of less control over work schedules is especially prominent among black and Hispanic single parents living in rural areas. Since 1997, the number of jobs with erratic hours beyond the control of the worker has grown and is now widespread, traversing most industries. McCrate calls for a two-pronged approach so workers can accommodate their family demands without negative ramifications on their work: first, increased child care options for parents, with an emphasis on backup plans, coupled with policies that give workers more flexibility and control, such as paid sick leave and vacation time; and second, policies that provide tax relief for employers who create good jobs and encourage employers to create jobs with stable hours through higher wages for jobs with irregular schedules or cross-training.

For the nation as a whole, race does not seem to be correlated with low-wage employment among women. However, in rural America, race and ethnicity are significant factors in women’s low-wage employment. Marlene Lee shows in chapter 10 that black and Hispanic women are more likely than white women to be employed in low-wage work in rural areas. Lee uses regression coefficients and decomposition techniques to attribute about one-third of the difference between rural and urban rates of low-wage employment to differences in education levels and rates of full-time, year-round employment (i.e., structural differences in returns to individuals and job characteristics between rural and urban populations). However, structural differences in returns to individual and job characteristics account for most of the gap between rural and urban low-wage employment rates within race and ethnic groups. When considering racial and ethnic differences in rates of low-wage employment in rural areas, differences in population characteristics account for most of the differential: living in the South is a large contributor for rural black women, and low education levels are a large contributor for rural Hispanic women. Lee concludes that narrowing the gap between rates of low-wage employment requires improvements in education and job quality in rural areas, but attention must also be paid to the structural differences in returns to education and full-time, year-round employment.

A disproportionate number of rural poor are women who are gainfully employed but earn near poverty-level wages. In part, the rise and persistence of women in low-wage employment is a result of economic restructuring. Using county-level data, Cynthia Anderson and Chih-Yuan Weng compare indicators of low-wage work across place in chapter 11, paying specific attention to variations in region and occupation. Rates of low-wage work tend to be higher in rural areas and vary by region, with the South typically having the highest rates and the Northeast the lowest. Female low-wage workers in rural areas tend to be single mothers, minorities, and workers with low education levels. Rates of rural low-wage work are higher for certain occupations, including food preparation, health care support, building and ground cleaning, personal care, and farming, fishing, and forestry. Because movement up and out of these occupations is not common, workers may be trapped in “job ghettos.” These results suggest that raising the minimum wage may not be sufficient for improving the lives of rural low-wage workers, since even twelve dollars per hour is not enough to sustain families. Instead, Anderson and Weng argue that increased access to good jobs is needed, which may require increased education and training to ensure that rural low-wage workers are not trapped in job ghettos but rather experience avenues of job mobility.

Work and Family Policy

This volume concludes with a focus on the programs and policies that might alleviate the detrimental effects of economic restructuring and their efficacy in rural areas. Chapters 12 through 16 examine key policy areas that either have or would make a material difference for rural families. A concluding chapter integrates the findings from these studies to provide a research and policy agenda for advancing the well-being of rural families and their members.

Economic restructuring has had substantial effects on the economic prospects of rural families, with particularly negative consequences for young people. In chapter 12, Liliokanaio Peaslee and Andrew Hahn critically review the literature on the state of rural youth development, with an emphasis on approaches that work to promote economic self-sufficiency among rural youth. They contend that successful rural economic renewal rests on strengthening opportunities for young people, and to revitalize rural communities, youth education, employment, and training programs must be linked with rural economic development plans.

Balancing the demands of work and family is difficult for any family, but rural low-income families face distinctive barriers due to the lack of resources available in many rural areas and financial constraints to accessing services. In chapter 13, Nicole Forry and Susan Walker review the research and identify the unique assets and challenges experienced by low-income rural families in securing care that both supports children’s development and parental employment, using federal and state policies as examples. Expanding child care subsidies and the Child and Dependent Care tax credit would further alleviate the burden of the high cost of child care for rural low-income families and facilitate maternal employment. Increasing Head Start and pre-K programs would ease the lack of access to formal child care in rural areas.

Economic restructuring puts rural families at risk of churning in and out of health care coverage or of losing health insurance altogether. In chapter 14, Deborah Roempke Graefe examines the trends in insurance coverage over the past ten years, comparing rural and urban families by race and ethnicity and poverty status, and considers how economic restructuring has played a role in the loss of health insurance coverage in rural areas. The prevalence of small businesses in rural areas, coupled with the high employee share of insurance premiums, contributes to the lower rates of private health insurance coverage in rural places. Since 2000, the loss of manufacturing jobs concurrent with the increase in service sector jobs has resulted in a larger share of rural Americans going without health insurance coverage. Rural minorities and low-income rural families are particularly disadvantaged as they are at high risk of experiencing a coverage gap. Graefe calls for a comprehensive approach that includes both health care market strategies and legislated health coverage policy.

A major impetus for welfare reform was to move welfare recipients into paid employment. Yet detailed studies of livelihood practices prior to welfare reform find that low-wage workers were often worse off than those on cash assistance or who combined income sources. This may be especially the case in poor rural areas where work is scarce and additional obstacles to employment such as lack of transportation and child care are endemic, but there is little research in these settings. In chapter 15, Ann Tickamyer and Debra Henderson track employed and nonemployed human service agency participants in communities with different levels of capacity to implement welfare-to-work policies from 1999 to 2005 and assess whether workers are better or worse off. While county differences are minimal, workers are better off than nonworkers and more so by the third survey year. They employ a wide variety of livelihood strategies beyond work for wages. Nevertheless, they remain poor and vulnerable to numerous hardships. Tickamyer and Henderson conclude that the safety net is frayed and does not provide adequate assistance for those seeking employment or working in low-wage jobs.

While Tickamyer and Henderson focus on county differences in their ability to implement welfare-to-work policies, Domenico Parisi, Steven Michael Grice, Guangqing Chi, and Jed Pressgrove address whether welfare reform has affected the use of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) in rural counties where the conditions to obtain, retain, and develop a job do not exist in chapter 16. They find that TANF and EITC pay off differently depending on the conditions in the local environment. The work-first philosophy of welfare reform results in uneven policy that exacerbates the disadvantages of single-mother families when no jobs exist in the local community. The EITC has contributed to improving the quality of life of the working poor in rural areas, and helped them to remain attached to the labor market. However, the benefits to EITC are not uniform, with fewer rural workers rising out of poverty due to the EITC and fewer benefits accruing to black workers in rural areas. They conclude that one-size-fits-all policies do not afford equal opportunities to all, and that the welfare-and-work debate should shift focus onto how local environments differentially shape opportunity and impede individuals’ efforts to attain personal responsibility and economic self-sufficiency.

What Is to Be Done About the Challenges Facing Rural Families in Light of Continued Economic Restructuring?

Several primary lessons emerge from these chapters that lead us to identify policy options that we think provide the most promise for improving the lives of rural families. This book illustrates the wide variety of ways that the lives of rural families have changed and adapted to the consequences of economic restructuring. As a whole, it documents the resiliency and adaptability of rural communities and families in the face of adverse economic circumstances. By studying the effects of economic restructuring on rural families and communities and how families are coping in light of continued economic hardship, we can recommend policies and programs that can assist them.

Our policy recommendations fall into several broad categories. First, rural areas need better employment options—stable jobs that pay a livable wage with benefits and predictable and controllable schedules. New and creative ways to create rural jobs should be considered. Mindful that rural areas are diverse, opportunities to bring in new technologies, especially energy and green technologies, may be fruitful endeavors and look different in various rural communities. Second, rural areas have dire service and amenity needs, such as improvements in schools, health care, day care, transportation, recreation, and social services, that, once addressed, will lead to viable and sustainable rural families and communities. Third, rural areas are in need of investment in infrastructure for new information technologies, such as broadband Internet access, public transportation, and other public services that will ultimately support employment and services. Fourth, rural areas need policies directed at rural places, but it is important to note that policies directed at all distressed families, including rural residents, remain an important priority but need to be further targeted for specific populations. Thus, tax credits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, have a major role in assisting rural families, but greater efforts need to be made to make sure that rural families understand and make use of these programs. Finally, this book demonstrates that even though we know what specific policies and programs can be of assistance to rural families, the bigger issue is how to make them happen. This book is a first step toward understanding the complexities and challenges facing rural families and communities and garnering the political will to support their efforts as part of the larger policy agenda.