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Children of the Land: Adversity and Success in Rural America / Edition 1

Children of the Land: Adversity and Success in Rural America / Edition 1

by Glen H. Elder Jr., Rand D. Conger


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226202662
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/28/2000
Series: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Mental Health and De Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 394
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Glen H. Elder Jr. is the Howard W. Odum Distinguished Research Professor of Sociology and research professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Rand D. Conger is distinguished professor of psychology, human development, and family studies in the Family Research Group at the University of California, Davis. 

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Children of the Land

Adversity and Success in Rural America

By Glen H. Elder Jr., Rand D. Conger

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2000 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-21253-1


Ties to the Land

Iowa is about the land and nature and people taking pride in what we do with our lives.

D. Shribman, winter, 1996

As we edge closer to the twenty-first century, American families and young people continue to leave agriculture as they have during past decades. A century ago, most Americans had ties to the land through their own lives and those of immediate kin. Now only one in fifty is engaged in farming, and little more than a fourth live in rural communities. This historic movement off the land has been driven by many factors, but especially by technological advances that have markedly enhanced productivity. More recently, global economic competition has reduced the profit margin of farm products and undermined rural wages. The growing appeal of urban commerce is weakening the vitality of local commerce, adding more incentives for young people to seek their future in urban centers.

In these diverse ways, a new world has come to the rural Midwest at century's end, to its families and children—a world in which members of the younger generation must seek a future outside of agriculture, with few exceptions, and often in distant places. A new world foretells new lives among those who make their way in it. The story of such change, of new lives in a new world, is recorded in patterns and trends, yet rural communities continue to rely upon the resourcefulness of a small number of farm families, their leadership, social involvement, and economic resources.

Are resourceful pathways for rural young people associated in any way with the social resourcefulness of families, especially of families still engaged in farming? To answer this question, we focus on rural Iowa, a region that suffered mightily in the Great Farm Crisis of the 1980s. The state lost a higher proportion of its citizens through outmigration than any other midwestern state across the decade. The number of farms has declined significantly since the 1960s, and the average surviving farm has grown in size. Most Iowans in the last century operated farms. Today little more than one-tenth run farms, though most rural Iowans have some connection to agriculture. Despite this change and the correlated economic hardship of rural communities, Iowa's children continue to rank among the very best on school success indicators compared to children in other states.

The historic economic problems of family farming were magnified by the 1980s Great Farm Crisis that hit the American Midwest with a force that will long be remembered. It was, indeed, the Great Depression all over again. By the mid-1980s, the Iowa landscape was littered with the casualties of this crisis, symbolized at times on courthouse lawns by a white cross for each lost farm. Across the countryside, seventy-five banks had closed, plus several hundred retail stores, and some fifteen hundred service stations. By the early 1990s, the construction industry was still down by 40 percent from the late 1970s. Businesses had boarded-up windows, and "for sale" signs appeared on the main streets of towns across the state. Good jobs and employment of any kind were difficult to find in small towns. Prompted by such limitations, people began leaving rural counties at a rate as high as 20 percent during the decade. The entire state lost nearly 5 percent of its population during the 1980s. Everyone knew someone who had left for other places, but especially young people.

Population losses of this magnitude posed drastic consequences for rural communities. The economic cost was most obvious in terms of declining jobs, sales, and taxes. An Iowa businessman noted that he had "watched business after business after business go out. We've lost industry. There hasn't been anything left unaffected by this." Mounting social costs also threatened the quality of community life, as in the breakdown of families, a reduction of students for the local school, and the loss of parents to provide leadership in civic, church, and school associations and functions. Many rural communities had to abandon local schools through consolidation and experienced the financial crises of local stores, churches, and social services as well. As in other times and places, the young people who left home were typically among the most able.

These economic and social costs are particularly evident in the departure of farm families, the economic and social foundation of rural life. Farm families generate the critical social capital, the relationships and working arrangements, that make communities desirable places in which to live and raise a family. They are typically characterized by shared goals and common activities. Parents and children in farm families do more activities together, in the family and centered in the community, than do urban families. Farm children are also counted on to a greater extent—they are more involved in activities that other family members value and rely upon. Children and young people on family farms are expected to do their part. Such an environment is likely to produce the discipline and competency necessary for a successful life.

Farm families in the Midwest frequently assemble in community associations to achieve common goals, such as a stronger school system, an effective youth group, or improved roads and health care. The typical farmer belongs to several voluntary associations or cooperatives. Leadership for the common good is a responsibility of farm families, in particular, and such actions satisfy norms of social obligation and stewardship. In these rural farm communities, effective social relations among people who have contact with children represent social capital that fosters personal qualities of competence. Adults with working relationships of mutual trust can share observations about children and enforce norms and goals. Social engagement for community goals is especially common among farm families such as those of German ancestry in which generational succession is important, a prominent cultural theme of rural midwestern communities.

With these qualities in mind, some observers question whether rural depopulation will alter our national character. "What about the beliefs and value systems that have been associated with life on the land? Will Americans be able to establish an acceptable value system that rests on life in cities, perhaps symbolized by concrete and neon lights?" Is the rapidly shrinking number of farm families symptomatic of a great transformation in which social resources are becoming scarcer in the lives of children? Are there fewer people in rural America who care for children in nurturant families, who know their friends and the parents of these friends? This loss means that social control is less effective in children's lives, reflecting an absence of adult consensus on things that matter. These questions have special relevance when we note the striking decline of two-parent farm families over the past century and a corresponding increase in the prevalence of divorce and one-parent households (figure 1.1).

The decline of families with ties to agriculture threatens the survival of an accustomed quality of life in rural communities that dot the open countryside, for young and old, children, parents, and grandparents. However, the quality of life at the community level may be placed at even greater risk when industrialized farming takes over. The long-term effects of this economic system tend to "limit future economic potential wherever it is found." Low wages, impoverished schools, and civic passivity are coupled with a siphoning of local wealth. Industrialized agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley of California has degraded the environment, and its practice of recruiting imported labor "has tended to weaken and impoverish communities and to divide them along class and ethnic lines." In Iowa, industrialized farming in the form of corporate contracts is most evident in hog factories that pollute the water, soil, and air.

This book is based on the rural life experiences of Iowa children who were born at the end of rural prosperity in the postwar era, a time that extends up to the late 1970s. They grew up in the north central region, experienced the Great Farm Crisis of the 1980s, whether through their own families or others, and now face a world transformed. We focus on children with family ties to the land, ranging from full-time farming to farm-reared parents and parents without a farm background. With an eye on routes to life success rather than failure, we investigate the extent to which successful development is linked to the social resources or capital of families with ties to the land. The study follows children in these families from the seventh grade through junior high school to high school graduation, a time of important life decisions on employment, further education, and social relationships.

We view the proposed sequence of family ties to the land, social resources, and adolescent competence within a framework of generational succession and the life course. The sequence involves key social roles that are played by parents, grandparents, and the adolescents within the last six years of secondary school. As applied in this study, life-course theory locates all of this within a particular historical time and place, stresses the role of parents and children as agents in working out options in their lives, brings sensitivity to the social timing of lives, and locates families in a matrix of linked relationships. The vitality and quality of this matrix provides the social resources or capital for human development.

This research problem emerged through interaction between the Iowa Youth and Families Project, a panel study that was launched in the late 1980s to investigate the continuing socioeconomic effects of the farm crisis on families and children, and the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Adolescent Development among Youth in High-Risk Settings. Research conducted as part of the Iowa Project has shown that rural families were adversely influenced by the farm crisis and that the emotional and behavioral responses of parents affected the competence and adjustment of their children. Lower income and indebtedness increased feelings of economic pressure. Such pressures over time eventually led to depressed feelings and marital negativity. These factors undermined effective parenting and the perceived competence of children.

Moving beyond the legacy of economic hardship, we ask how rural youth manage to succeed in a disadvantaged region through the assistance of family, school, and civic groups. What are the resourceful pathways to greater opportunity? Children of the Great Depression led to questions of this kind for Americans who had grown up in the 1930s, and such questions have become more compelling with each new level of inequality in American society. These issues shaped the long-term objectives of the Iowa Youth and Families Project and the research mission of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Adolescent Development among Youth in High-Risk Settings.

The Iowa Project and the MacArthur Network were joined in 1988 when Elder became a member of the latter and encouraged its efforts to develop a common focus on the pathways that enable youth to surmount their disadvantaged backgrounds. Economic decline in the rural Midwest had become a chronic condition of disadvantage by that time, defining the setting as a high-risk environment. Families with ties to the land, from full-time farming to a farm childhood, theoretically possess social resources that could establish an important bridge to life opportunity for Iowa young people. These resources feature engagement in the community and the shared activities of the generations.

Before turning to the Iowa Project and its life-course approach, however, we describe the contrasting worlds of childhood that are represented by the study region, which is only fifty miles away from Des Moines, the flourishing state capital.

Two Worlds of Childhood: Rural Decline and Urban Prosperity

Rural America presents two faces to the larger society, the appeal of agricultural life, especially for children, and a portrait of chronic, debilitating poverty. Today, children who grow up amidst poverty in rural America are as common as in our inner cities. Rural hardship and urban opportunities have fueled rural outmigration, linking the problems and prospects of countryside and metropolis.

The inequality of rural and urban America has widened appreciably over the past decade, generating a contrast that is strikingly apparent as we place the study region in context after the farm crisis and compare it to Des Moines, the largest metropolitan area in Iowa. Des Moines, Iowa's state capital, has become a diversified center of government, finance, transportation, and high technology. Before turning to this comparison, we note some general trends on rural population decline, urban growth, and the steady expansion of farm size. The study region of eight counties (figure 1.2) lies due north of Des Moines. Webster, Hamilton, Hardin, and Marshall counties make up the lower tier; Humboldt, Wright, Franklin, and Butler comprise the upper tier.

This rich agricultural region, with land values above the state's average, lost half of its farms between 1950 and 1990, as did Iowa as a whole, and the decline in other parts of the country was comparable. During the same period, farm size nearly doubled for the study region (up to 361 acres, 1992), as it did in the state and nation. The study region's population declined by 12 percent over this forty-year period, and virtually all of the loss occurred in the farm sector. Two counties lost nearly a third of their mid-century population over this period. At the same time, the state population grew by 6 percent, mainly in rural nonfarm and urban areas, despite a net loss for the 1980s. As might be expected, Des Moines was the principal beneficiary of this growth—an increase of nearly 50 percent.

How did the study region fare in the Great Farm Crisis when compared to the state and other regions? Consider the value of farm land and buildings, which rose sharply in the 1970s and then declined just as abruptly. We calculated the average values from 1964 through 1992 in constant dollars for the study region and for Iowa, Georgia, and the United States. The state of Georgia was included to provide a regional contrast for the Midwest. It is the site of an ambitious 1980s study of farm families and farm operations in crisis. Figure 1.3 shows that the growth in value was most rapid up to 1978 for the study area and the state of Iowa; it declined just as rapidly from 1978 to 1987, and then stabilized to 1992. By comparison, Georgia and the country as a whole show little if any change. Though declining profits and inflated prices threatened the survival of farms in all regions at the time, the midwestern grain states suffered the greatest loss in land values, owing partly to an embargo on grain sales to the Soviet Union.

Two additional economic indicators—housing units authorized by building permits and retail sales—enable us to compare the study region with trends in Des Moines and the United States (see appendix table E1.1). In each case, we used 1977 (= 100) as the baseline to assess the percentage change. The number of housing units authorized by building permits is a sensitive barometer of economic growth and decline. For example, in the four upper-tier counties, officials authorized the construction of more than nine hundred housing units from 1977 through 1980. By 1985–88, this figure had dropped to only fifty-one. New construction over these four years had literally disappeared. By graphing the data in figure 1.4, we find that authorized building units declined sharply both in Des Moines and in the study region through 1982, and then the economies of the two areas followed different trajectories. Des Moines's construction picked up substantially and matched the U.S. level by 1990, whereas construction activity in the study area continued to fall until 1986 and then stagnated through the early 1990s at less than 20 percent of the 1977 activity rate.

This contrast in the economic health of rural Iowa and Des Moines, from the doldrums to prosperity, also appears in figures on retail sales, as constant dollars. The Great Farm Crisis undermined the economic health of small-town stores, and many were eventually forced to close, leaving boarded-up buildings lining the main streets of rural communities. Despite the appeals of local merchants, families in the study region increasingly shifted their shopping to the malls and stores of the large cities, particularly Des Moines. Total retail sales had declined by 23 percent across the eight counties by 1987, a year when sales in Des Moines were slightly greater than they were in 1977. The health of Des Moines was matched by figures on the Midwest as a whole and exceeded the prosperity of the South Atlantic region. Most striking, the economic gap has continued to expand. By 1992, sales for the study region were still down by 26 percent, whereas Des Moines had actually gained this same amount in retail sales. A grandmother in the study observed (1994) that

It's been hard for a lot of our families these last years, and I don't see it really getting any better. Things that you want to buy take more income all the time, and the income doesn't go up. As a family, we really have to support each other a lot. And help out in whatever we do. We have plumbers, electricians. So that's a help. We do most of the building or anything like that. The community has scholarship programs for the young. And the church helps out—it's just good to know you are supported by people that care.


Excerpted from Children of the Land by Glen H. Elder Jr., Rand D. Conger. Copyright © 2000 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Foreword by Ross D. Parke
Part 1: Rural Change and Life chances
1. Ties to the Land
Two Worlds of Childhood: Rural Decline and Urban Prosperity
The Iowa Project and Approach
Family Ties to the Land and Resourceful Pathways
Studying Lives in Changing Times: A Cautionary Note
2. Families and the Generations
Family Continuity in Agriculture and Kinship
Social Ties in the Community
Values to Live By
Resourceful Families and Children
Part 2: Pathways to Competence
3. Ties to Family and Land
Family Continuity and Change
Pathways to Success in High School
Developmental Risks and Success
4. Always Work to Do
Some Developmental Meanings of Work
The Ecologies of Children's Labor
Work Paths to Competence
Productive Work Empowers
5. Bridging Family and Community
Community Ties in a Rural Ecology
Doing Better or Worse than Expected
The Socially Embedded Family
6. Wisdom of the Ages
Ways of Grandparenting
Grandparents in Young Lives
Significant Grandparents and Successful Development
Family Strength and Social Redundancy
7. Church, Family, and Friends
Passing on Religion
From Church to Youth Group
Religious Ways and Competence
8. Lessons from School
Activity Patterns through Adolescence
Getting Involved: The Influence of Family and School
Achieving Competence through Activities
Turning Points in Activities
Lessons for Life
9. Achieving Success, Avoiding Trouble
Agrarian Culture and Youth Competence
Promoting Success and Avoiding Trouble
Questions of Resilience and Vulnerability
Putting the Story Together
Some Reflections
Part 3: Past, Present, and Future
10. Legacies of the Land
Approaches and Some Alternatives
Pathways of Resilience for Young Lives
Midwest Themes of a Rural Adolescence
Continuity and Change
A. The Iowa Youth and Families Project
B. Measurements I: Indicators of Competence and Success
C. Measurements II: Other Indicators by Chapter
D. Analytic Approach: Identifying Resilient and Vulnerable Youth
E. Appendix Tables
Selected Bibliography

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