Request for Articles - Growing Up in Rural America

Growing Up in Rural America
How Place Shapes Education, Health, Family and Economic Outcomes

Edited by

Shelley Clark
Department of Sociology
McGill University

Sam Harper
Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics & Occupational Health
McGill University

Bruce Weber
Department of Applied Economics
Oregon State University

It is well established that childhood conditions have profound and lasting influence on children’s wellbeing (Duncan et al. 1998). Yet, much of what we know comes from studies of urban children or national databases, which are dominated by urban samples (Duncan and Magnuson 2011; Brooks-Gunn et al. 1997). Consequently, surprisingly little is known about how the social and economic conditions in which rural children are raised are related to their outcomes and life chances. Such analyses are important as the experience of growing up in rural America has changed over the past several decades and varies considerably across rural communities, leading to contrasting images of what it is like to grow up in rural America. Some depictions emphasize its positive dimensions including strong social support among neighbors, opportunities for learning the disciplines of hard work and personal integrity, and developing a deep attachment to the land and natural environment (Stegner 1992; Howarth 1995). Other accounts detail the hardships experienced during childhood, where good job opportunities are limited, incomes are low, housing is dilapidated, and racial discrimination is deeply entrenched (Duncan 2015; Edin and Schaefer 2015; Tickamyer et al. 2017). Even within a given rural area, its image may change over time. In his book Our Kids, Putnam (2015) described how the small town where he grew up has changed from a relatively classless place, where children from all socio-economic levels studied and played together, to a town with sharp class divisions and rigid segregation. These dramatic changes and contrasting images highlight the growing need for a deeper and more nuanced understanding of how rural environments may shape the immediate and longer-term wellbeing of children and youth.

Existing studies, which often rely on simple dichotomous measures of rural and urban areas, further highlighting the need for additional research by revealing sharp differences in the lives of rural and urban children across multiple important life domains, including family, education, economic security, and health. For example, rural households are more likely to experience joblessness as unemployment rates remain significantly higher in rural than in urban counties (Economic Research Service, 2019). The experience of poverty also differs in rural areas as rural children are more likely than urban children to live in poverty, rural workers are more likely to be poor, and poverty is more persistent across generations in rural areas (Lichter and Graefe 2011; Lichter et al. 2004; Lichter and Schafft 2016; Rothwell and Thiede 2017; Thiede et al. 2018a; Thiede et al. 2018b; Thiede et al. 2017)1. Historically, rural children were more likely to be raised in stable two-parent households, although recent data show that rural children are now as likely as urban children to live with single-parents, and more likely to live with cohabiting adults (MacTavish and Salamon 2004; McLaughlin et al. 1999; O’Hare et al. 2009).

During adolescence, rural youths exhibit new manifestations of disadvantage. Rural teenage girls are nearly twice as likely as urban girls to become pregnant and give birth, and the gap between rural and urban teen childbirth has widened in recent decades (Hamilton et al. 2016; Ng and Kaye 2015). Opioid use is also higher among rural teenagers (Monnat and Rigg 2016). With respect to education, rural youth are less likely to complete a four-year college degree or receive advanced professional or graduate training (Economic Research Service 2017). This lower educational achievement may partly reflect the lower returns to education, more compressed job opportunities, and higher rates of unemployment in rural areas (Hamilton et al. 2008). However, it may also result from higher rates of out-migration of more educated young adults (Carr and Kafalas 2009; Gibbs and Cromartie 1994; Johnson 2014; Sherman and Sage 2011). Rural outmigration can be substantial. Between 1990 and 2005, the rural Midwest experienced a 50 percent decline in its population aged 25 to 34 (Hamilton et al. 2008). Yet despite these disadvantages many rural youths desire to remain, noting close ties to their families and communities and a dislike for the congestion and anomie of urban life, and many out-migrants return to rural areas (von Reichert et al. 2011).

Developing effective policies to address these rural-urban disparities in childhood and adolescence requires more nuanced analyses of contextual and life-course factors. First, examination of the ways growing up in rural America are related to life chances must move beyond simple measures of rural and urban, addressing the considerable diversity within rural landscapes and populations. Contextual characteristics such as population density, distance to urban centers, ethnic composition and segregation, natural amenities, unemployment, and access to health care vary considerably across the rural-urban spectrum and within rural areas (Chan et al. 2006; Cossman et al. 2017). The defining characteristic of rural areas, low population density, poses numerous and potentially universal challenges in terms of access to health and educational services, limited job markets, and reduced economies of scale (Baker et al. 2014; Biddle et al. 2017; Carlson and Goss 2016; Chan et al. 2006; Hamilton et al. 2008; Lobao 2014). However, in some rural areas these challenges are mitigated by proximity to urban areas and an increasing interdependence of rural and urban places (Lichter and Brown 2011; Lichter and Ziliak 2017; Partridge and Rickman 2008; Wu et al. 2017), while in other amenity-rich rural areas, attractive environmental features (e.g., lakes, mountains, rivers), air quality, low traffic congestion, strong social bonds, and natural resources offer residents distinctive advantages over urban centers (Hamilton et al. 2008). Further studies are needed to assess how variation in these contextual factors are related to the wellbeing of rural children and adolescents with respect to their family structures, educational achievements, economic security, and overall health.

Second, several of the rural-urban differences (noted above) in adolescence, early adulthood, and beyond may have their roots earlier in the life course. In their review of rural studies, Burton and colleagues (2013) call for more longitudinal research on the longer-term impact of childhood conditions in rural areas on subsequent health outcomes. There is a similar dearth of research on rural life trajectories with respect to family formation, educational attainment, careers, and earnings. Although some rural-natives appear to experience cumulative disadvantage with deteriorating educational, health, and economic trajectories from birth to young adulthood, others thrive. In their landmark study, Chetty et al. (2014) present the intriguing finding that, on average, adolescents in rural areas experience more upward income mobility than urban adolescents. Their study is mute on the question of whether rural upward mobility is experienced primarily by those who move to urban areas. A more recent examination of their data suggests that some of this rural advantage is related to remoteness from metropolitan core counties, highlighting the potential of combining contextual factors with a life course perspective (Weber et al. 2018).

To advance academic knowledge of the implications of growing up rural and to develop policies that promote greater geographic equality, this volume will examine how being born and raised in rural America shapes the immediate and longer-term wellbeing of children and youths. The issue will feature original qualitative and quantitative research that focuses on four key life domains: family dynamics, education, economic security, and health. We are particularly (but not exclusively) interested in studies that expand our current knowledge by 1) examining the links between specific rural contextual characteristics and the wellbeing of children and youth and/or 2) assessing the cumulative or longer-term outcomes for those born and raised in rural areas. We also invite studies that provide a synthesis of person- and place-based policies designed to improve outcomes for rural youths. We encourage proposals from a range of social sciences including economics, education, demography, geography, public health, social work, and sociology.

Below we summarize the three main sections and propose illustrative questions. These sections will be preceded by a synthetic overview of the challenges and opportunities of growing up in rural America, including trends in rural America with respect to family dynamics, education, economic security, and health over the last fifty years.

1. Contextual Factors and the Wellbeing of Rural Children and Youth

A rich body of research demonstrates that contextual factors in urban areas are related to children’s, adolescents’, and young adults’ well-being (e.g., Brooks-Gunn et al. 1997; Sampson 2008). More recently, nationally representative ecological studies using big data have shown that contextual characteristics across counties or commuting-zones, such as the percentage of single mothers, segregation, school quality, and income inequality, are associated with upward income mobility (Chetty et al. 2014), and that some characteristics may matter more in rural than urban areas (Weber et al. 2018). Other studies suggest that county-level differences in economic, social, and healthcare characteristics can largely account for rural-urban differences in opioid-related and other mortality rates (Keyes et al. 2014; Monnat 2018; Monnat and Brown 2017).  

In this section, we seek to expand upon this small, but growing, literature through papers that examine how specific contextual characteristics are related to the family dynamics, educational achievements, economic security, and health of rural children and youths. Potential types of questions include:

  • What are the contextual determinants of child and adolescent health, economic security, education, and family stability in rural areas?
  • Do the associations between contextual factors and child and adolescent welfare differ in urban and rural areas?
  • What lessons can be learned from urban-based neighborhood studies that are applicable in rural areas? Are there some contextual factors (i.e. distance to urban hubs, size of largest town, presence of natural amenities) that only pertain to rural areas?
  • To what extent do differences in rural and urban contextual factors explain rural-urban disparities in child and adolescent outcomes?
  • Does the impact of contextual characteristics on child and adolescent outcomes vary across the spectrum of rural-urban classification?

2. Cumulative and Longer-term Implications of Growing Up in Rural America

Studies that take a life course perspective have shown that conditions early in life (even in utero) can have a cumulative and long-term impact on transitions to adulthood and well into middle age (Elder et al. 2003). For example, experiences of poverty and poor health in childhood are related to chronic morbidity in later life (Blackwell et al. 2001). Other research links poverty and family instability in urban areas to several adverse outcomes during adolescence and early adulthood including increased risk of teen pregnancy, higher rates of drug use, and lower educational achievement (Clark and Fomby 2018; Fomby and Cherlin 2007; Fomby and Bosick 2013; Hofferth and Goldscheider 2010; Smith et al. 2018).

However, the relationship between early childhood conditions and later life outcomes, including family formation, educational attainment, employment, and health, remains poorly understood in rural areas. This section seeks studies which will address this gap. Such studies may rely on traditional longitudinal surveys or seek innovative ways to examine these questions by, for example, relying on linked administrative files, using cross-sectional data with retrospective reporting of place of birth, incorporating longitudinal county-level characteristics, or by focusing on outcomes in adolescence and young adulthood that are less affected by internal migration. Studies which examine differences in life outcomes with respect to race/ethnicity and gender are especially encouraged, as poverty is often highest among rural minorities located in the Mississippi Delta and Southeastern U.S. (Lee and Singelmann 2006; Lichter and Johnson 2007; Parisi et al. 2005; Thiede et al. 2018a), in colonias along the Mexican border (Saenz and Torres 2003), and on Native American reservations (Beale 2004; Snipp 1989). Moreover, the literature on adults indicates that rural men often fare worse than women with respect to health, unemployment, and college education (Ziliak 2018; Sherman 2009; Sherman 2011). Last, although numerous studies note the detrimental impact of out-migration on those who remain, additional studies are needed which examine the fate of these rural migrants themselves (Li et al. 2018; Weber et al. 2007; Rodgers and Rodgers 1997).

Examples of potential research questions include:

  • What rural conditions in childhood (i.e. nutrition, educational performance, family instability, poverty, religiosity, parental education, food security, household wealth) are most strongly correlated with outcomes in adolescence and early-adulthood (obesity, teen pregnancy, marriage, alcohol and drug use, college completion, entry into the labor force, earnings)? Such analyses could include county-level characteristics during childhood (i.e. unemployment rate, poverty, racial composition, percentage of single mothers, etc.)
  • Are some childhood conditions stronger predictors of adolescent and young adult outcomes in rural than urban areas?
  • To what extent can rural-urban differences in childhood conditions account for rural-urban differences later in the life course?
  • How do rural life trajectories vary by race and by sex? Do some rural groups (i.e. rural men, African-Americans, Hispanics) face greater cumulative disadvantage than their urban counterparts? Over the last decade, have some rural groups experienced improvements in their life trajectories, while others have declined?

How important is migration to the family, educational, economic, and health trajectories for rural-born (or raised) children? What are the patterns of migration (from rural-urban and rural-rural), how are they associated with key life events such as attending college, getting married, or finding a job? Are rural migrants better or worse off compared to both rural-stayers and urban-natives?

3. Person- and Place-based Polices to Improve Rural Outcomes

Developing effective person- and place-based policies to counter geographic inequalities requires a nuanced understanding of the contextual factors influencing child wellbeing in rural areas and the longer-term implications of childhood adversity (Hendrickson et al. 2018). This section will include one or two chapters identifying specific place-based and person-based policies that will 1) address contextual characteristics that have the strongest impact on the well-being of rural children and youths and 2) identify factors that counter early life conditions of rural childhood having the most detrimental and enduring impact on their educational, family, health, and economic outcomes.

Anticipated Timeline

Prospective contributors should submit a CV and an abstract (up to two pages in length, single or double spaced) of their study along with up to two pages of supporting material (e.g., tables, figures, pictures, etc.) no later than 5 PM EST on September 26, 2019 to:

NOTE that if you wish to submit an abstract and do not yet have an account with us, it can take up to 48 hours to get credentials, so please start your application at least two days before the deadline. All submissions must be original work that has not been previously published in part or in full. Only abstracts submitted to will be considered. Each paper will receive a $1,000 honorarium when the issue is published. All questions regarding this issue should be directed to Suzanne Nichols, Director of Publications, at and not to the email addresses of the editors of the issue.

A conference will take place at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York City on March 27, 2020 (with a group dinner the night before). The selected contributors will gather for a one-day workshop to present draft papers (due a month prior to the conference on 2/27/20) and receive feedback from the other contributors and editors. Travel costs, food, and lodging for one author per paper will be covered by the foundation. Papers will be circulated before the conference. After the conference, the authors will submit their revised drafts by 6/3/20. The papers will then be sent out to three additional scholars for formal peer review. Having received feedback from reviewers and the RSF board, authors will revise their papers by 11/2/20. The full and final issue will be published in the late summer/fall of 2021. Papers will be published open access on the RSF website as well as in several digital repositories, including JSTOR and UPCC/Muse.

1If poverty rates are measured using the supplemental poverty rate, poverty is lower in rural than urban counties (Weber and Miller 2017)



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