Academic journal article Michigan Family Review

More Good Times and Hard Times: Family Diversity in a Rural Michigan Community

Academic journal article Michigan Family Review

More Good Times and Hard Times: Family Diversity in a Rural Michigan Community

Article excerpt

Rural America is widely assumed to be a positive and wholesome environment for families. The experiences of the women studied here do not uniformly fit that optimistic construction. This study joins a significant literature that challenges the idealization of rural family life (e.g., Bokemeier & Garkovich, 1991; Egan, 2002; Gringeri, 2001; Willits & Luloff, 1995). This article presents the results of a follow-up study to a 1995-1996 case study of White rural families in a small Michigan community. In the summer of 2002, I returned to the research community to interview a subgroup of women who had participated in the initial study. In this paper, I summarize the results of the initial study and present key findings from the new research. [2]

The central concerns of the initial study were family structure, economic subsistence, and difference. I explored family structure by asking: How are the family households in this sample configured? Are current household arrangements longstanding or are they characterized by substantial fluidity? I addressed economic subsistence by asking: What decisions do family members make and what actions do they take to sustain their households economically? I examined difference in the experience of rural families by analyzing them through the lens of social class, asking: How does family experience vary by social class? How do the ways that families are structured and sustain themselves economically differ by social class?

Diversity is doubtlessly a hallmark of contemporary family life. Family scholars recognize that race, class, and gender create a multiplicity of social locations from which individuals create and maintain their family lives. Among this sample of White women, diversity in family experience appeared along the lines of social class. Both family structure variation and differentiation in patterns of resource generation were associated with the social-class position of families. Middle-class families had secure economic resources and stable family circumstances. Moving down the social-class ladder, I found increasingly insecure economic resources and unstable family circumstances. Research participants in higher social-class locations generally described their family lives in terms of "good times" while individuals in lower social-class locations were more likely to describe "hard times." The follow-up study finds that patterns identified in the initial research generally continued in the years between the initial and subsequent studies.

A substantial body of literature documents how macrostructural changes in recent decades have created diverse and challenging economic contexts for constructing and maintaining family life (e.g., Edin & Lein, 1996; Nelson & Smith, 1999; Rubin, 1994; Stacey, 1990; Wilson, 1987). This literature illumines the interrelationship between households and the communities in which they are situated. The salient point for this research is that individuals make family-related decisions (for instance, when and whether to marry or divorce) and strategies for making ends meet (for instance, when and whether a primary breadwinner moonlights or a mother takes a job) in specific social and economic contexts.

I studied a sample of families in a rural setting to explore how this unique social and economic context shapes family outcomes that may be particular to this situation. While space limitations here preclude a wide-ranging discussion of either rural family demographics or labor markets, two general points are particularly relevant to this analysis. First, rural workers encounter a more restrictive set of employment opportunities than do urban workers. Rural labor markets tend to offer low-skill, low-wage work that is frequently part-time or seasonal (Gibbs, 2001). Per capita income in rural areas is approximately 70 percent of income in urban areas (Economic Research Service [ERS], 2003). Second, while the percentage of nonfamily households and female-headed family households continues to rise in all spatial contexts, nonetheless rural residents continue to be more likely to live in married couple households than are their urban counterparts. …

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