2018 journal article

Rural Low-Income Families' Quest for Economic Security: It Takes More Than a Paycheck

Family Science Review, 22(01).

By: S. Mammen, A. Berry, C. Bird* & K. Chandler

Source: Crossref
Added: January 29, 2022

Rural, low-income families face a multitude of challenges in their quest for economic security. This paper presents the major findings from two studies, Rural Families Speak and Rural Families Speak about Health, that highlight factors that contribute to the economic well-being of these families. These factors included employment challenges as well as the role of various types of support, such as public assistance programs, social and family networks, resource management skills, and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Policymakers should pay special attention to income needs of vulnerable families in the context of unique challenges of living in rural areas. Economically secure rural families are better prepared to play important roles in the viability and vitality of their communities. Policy implications and recommendations to improve families’ economic well-being are provided with this perspective in mind. Direct correspondence to Sheila Mammen at smammen@resecon.umass.edu RURAL, LOW-INCOME FAMILIES’ QUEST FOR ECONOMIC SECURITY 10 Family Science Review, Volume 22, Issue 1, 2018 © 2018 Family Science Association. All rights reserved. Rural, Low-Income Families’ Quest for Economic Security: It Takes More Than a Paycheck The population of rural (non-metro) counties represents 14% (46.2 million) of US residents (Economic Research Service [ERS], 2016). Since poverty rates were first recorded in the 1960s, rural poverty has been higher than urban poverty; there also seems to be a positive association between the degree of poverty and the degree of rurality (ERS, 2015). Along with unemployment, the poverty rate, which rose throughout the recent Great Recession (2007-2009) has now fallen modestly; the poverty rate stands at 17.2% in non-metro and 14.7% in metro areas (ERS, 2016). The rural poverty rate is highest in the South (21.7%) and among female-headed households (45%), children (26.7%), African-Americans (33.8%), and the fastest-growing rural group, Hispanics (25.9%) (ERS, 2014; ERS, 2016). The Rural Families Speak (RFS), 1998-2008, and Rural Families Speak about Health (RFSH), 2008-2019, 1 studies have provided a significant body of knowledge regarding economic security of rural low-income families before and after the Great Recession. Table 1 shows the vulnerability and dependence of rural families as measured by employment status and receipt of public assistance during the two periods covered by RFS and RFSH. RFSH mothers and spouses/partners were less likely to be employed (mothers: 34%, spouses/partners: 66%) than were RFS mothers and spouses/partners (mothers: 51%, spouses/partners: 83%). There was a concomitant rise in participation among RFSH households in three of the major assistance programs (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families 2 [TANF]: 25%, RFSH; 20%, RFS; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program 3 [SNAP]: 70%, RFSH; 54%, RFS; Medicaid: 88%, RFSH; 72%, RFS). Rural families generally face multiple challenges that affect their economic well-being. They engage in multiple strategies to become financially secure. Most families rely on a mix of income from employment, public assistance programs, social and family supports, and resource management skills, all of which are crucial to their economic security. Findings from RFS/RFSH that describe rural families’ use of these strategies are presented in this paper, which is organized around two major themes: (a) the economic well-being of rural low-income families with special emphasis on the role of family and social supports, receipt of public assistance, and resource management skills; and (b) the landscape of rural employment, including barriers to mothers’ employment and use of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Implications for policy and future research are then discussed. 1 The objective of the Rural Families Speak (RFS) project (1998-2008) was to study the well-being of rural, lowincome families in the context of the 1996 federal welfare reform legislation. The overall goal of the Rural Families Speak about Health (RFSH) study (2008-2019) was to identify the factors that influence physical and mental health among vulnerable, rural families. While there were different samples in RFS and RFSH, the participants in both studies were rural female caregivers, 18 years of age or older, with at least one child under the age of 13. For a complete description of RFS/RFSH studies, please see “Rural, Low-Income Families and their Well-Being: Findings from 20 Years of Research” (Family Science Review, issue 1, 2018). 2 Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) was formerly Aid to Families with Dependent Children Program (AFDC). 3 Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) was formerly Food Stamps Program. RURAL, LOW-INCOME FAMILIES’ QUEST FOR ECONOMIC SECURITY 11 Family Science Review, Volume 22, Issue 1, 2018 © 2018 Family Science Association. All rights reserved. The Economic Well-being of Rural Families The US government measures economic well-being primarily through personal or household income, an objective indicator. Studies (Cummins, 2000; Kahneman & Deaton, 2010; Veenhoven, 2002) have shown, however, that individuals’ subjective assessment of their income, referred to as income adequacy, 4 was more likely to affect their life satisfaction than was actual income. Investigations by Mammen, Bauer, and Lass (2009) have corroborated this finding. As shown in Table 1, half (49%) of the rural families in the RFS study described their incomes as inadequate (i.e., either not at all adequate or can only meet necessities). A decade later, perhaps as a result of the Great Recession coupled with wage stagnation of the last few decades, twothirds (66%) of RFSH families described their incomes as inadequate. Additional measures to determine economic well-being include possession of consumer durables, housing and neighborhood conditions, and support systems that households have when problems occur (Siebens, 2013). Even when mothers and spouses/partners were employed, the household incomes of rural families did not enable them to achieve economic self-sufficiency (Bauer & Braun, 2002). With an average monthly income of $791 (Bauer & Braun, 2002), many of the families did not earn enough income to keep them out of poverty (Bauer, Braun, & Dyk, 2003). The Family Economic Well-Being Scale, developed by Bauer, Braun, and Olsen (2000), places families into four categories based on economic well-being: (a) in crisis; (b) at risk; (c) safe; and, (d) thriving. Incrisis families are unable to meet even the most basic needs. At-risk families cannot fully meet their needs with current incomes and require a variety of public assistance to do so. Families who are safe are able to meet most needs with their incomes. Finally, thriving families have incomes sufficient to meet their needs as well as afford some wants. Over one-half (55%) of rural families were found to be “in crisis” mode (Bauer, Braun, & Olson, 2000). Mammen, Dolan, and Seiling (2015) further explained rural families’ economic situation through the Economic Well-Being Continuum (EWC), a comprehensive measure describing circumstances of low-income families in eight specific dimensions to establish their levels of economic functioning. These dimensions include families’ child care options, employability, food security, health care security, housing security, transportation availability, reliance on assistance programs, and their capabilities. Health issues and relationship changes were significant trigger events that established or altered economic functioning of rural families. The Role of Family and Social Supports Rural families juggled resources to make ends meet and relied upon various types of supports for their financial needs. Most (91%) were at risk of economic crisis and were unlikely to become financially self-sufficient even though they had earned income (Braun, 2003). Families who lived in communities with higher rates of poverty were more likely to be at an economic disadvantage and used informal and formal supports to make ends meet (Wasberg, 4 Income adequacy is measured using a Likert-type scale: “can afford about everything we want and still save money”; “can afford about everything we want”; “can afford some of the things we want”; “can meet necessities only”; “not at all adequate.” RURAL, LOW-INCOME FAMILIES’ QUEST FOR ECONOMIC SECURITY 12 Family Science Review, Volume 22, Issue 1, 2018 © 2018 Family Science Association. All rights reserved. 2007). Reliance on family and social support as well as government assistance was a recurring and consistent theme in the findings. Social support mitigated rural families’ hardships (Mammen, Dolan, & Seiling, 2015) and buffered them against economic challenges (Kohler, Anderson, Oravecz, & Braun, 2004). Although needs were high and resources were few, mothers used various support networks to meet their needs (Seiling, Manoogian, & Son, 2011). Many mothers shared information on how family, friends, and churches supported them in times of need. Such support included giving objective opinions, being there when needed, and sending help when asked (Kohler, Anderson, Oravecz, & Braun, 2004). Simmons, Braun, Wright, and Miller (2007) reported that a model of economic well-being that included both social support and human capital provided a better fit for the data, as social support was a key contributor to long-term success of rural families. The most well-adjusted mothers were those who found a mix of supports that worked effectively and efficiently for them and their families (Sero-Lynn, 2010). For some mothers, however, borrowing money from family or friends increased economic strain (Bird, 2006). Receipt of Public Assistance Public assistance programs played an important role in rural families’ income security. Help is extended to qualified families through a variety of programs including Medicaid, TANF, SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Program for W