The Iowa Youth and Families Project

Description of the Study and Data Collection

The project was launched in 1987 to investigate the human consequences of the Farm Crisis that began in the late 1970s and continued to affect rural America up to 1997, a decline more drastic than any downswing since the 1930s. The core project is directed by Rand Conger of Iowa State University while Elder serves as a co-principal investigator and director of the “Rural Social Change” component of the project.

Data collection began in 1989 with a sample of 451 two-parent families from eight north central counties of Iowa. The counties were selected for their rural farm economies and proximity to the project’s home at the Family Research Center in Ames, Iowa. In order to facilitate the recruitment of farm families and minimize variations in family structure, the study design called for two-parent families with a 7th-grader and a near sib (within four years of age). The initial pool of families was defined in terms of 7th grade students who were enrolled in public and private schools during the fall term of 1989. The 7th grade criterion provided a match to the sample used in the study Children of the Great Depression (Elder, 1974).

The sample has been followed up annually from 1989 to 1992, then again in 1994 (senior year of high school), 1995, 1997, and 2000. Parents and children were surveyed in each of these years, and in most of the years family interactions were videotaped. The videotapes provide the basis for behavioral ratings of husband-wife interaction, sib interaction, and family interaction. Shortly after the project began two additional samples were added to the project: a sample of 107 single-parent families in 1991 and approximately 900 grandparents in 1994. The grandparents were contacted again in 1998, with a subsample participating in an in-depth, face-to-face interview. As of 1999, approximately 500 families are still active participants in the project.

The Iowa project is widely regarded as having the richest archive of life record data on rural families and children in the United States, and it is likely to continue for some time to come. Most of the target children are approximately 26 years at present, and periodic data collection is planned over the next five years with support from the National Institute of Mental Health.

The Iowa State and UNC teams have worked out a division of labor that reflects the unique strengths and interests of each group. The members of the Ames group share a primary interest in family interactive processes and personal adaptation whereas the Chapel Hill team examines social change in families and lives, with emphasis on the life course and health outcomes.

In 2003 Rand D. Conger and Glen H. Elder, Jr. were honored by the Rural Sociological Society with the Award for Distinguished Service to Rural Life.

UNC Research Program

A general picture of many of the UNC program’s interests with the Iowa data can be captured with the following schematic:

iowa1400.gifThis analytic model views ties to the land and the traditions of family farming as a source of strength, determination, values, and social connectedness that increase the resilience of young people to the economic and population decline of the rural midwest. Research is investigating the hypothesis that farm families provide their children with an advantage in terms of academic achievement, psychological well-being, social success, and the avoidance of problem behavior relative to their nonfarm peers.

In theory and research, this advantage is expressed in terms of five “resource” mechanisms that are most evident among farm families, especially with German ancestry:

  1. family relationships, sibling and parent-child, with emphasis on the father-son bond and joint activity between parent and child;
  2. productive roles for children and values stressing collective endeavors and non- materialistic goals for children;
  3. close ties with and support from grandparents, particularly on the paternal side;
  4. strong family connections to community institutions through the involvement of parents; and
  5. the active involvement of children in school, church, and community.

Some Major Findings

1. Resilience and resourcefulness. In the unpromising world of rural Iowa, with rising poverty and limited opportunity, when compared with nearby urban centers, the study finds that a large number of young people are on paths to successful development and life achievement. In the 7th grade, children who had been displaced from their farms by economic circumstances ranked above all other groups of Iowa children on feelings of economic hardship, emotional distress, the felt indifference of parents, and lack of parental warmth. The boys in particular were doing more poorly in school than any other group. By the 12th grade, some six years later, the emotional well-being of this group had improved immeasurably.

Another example: the farm families entered the 1980s with some economic advantages over nonfarm households, but they were severely hit by the farm crisis over a prolonged period of time and most are still struggling to survive in an unfavorable market place. Despite this adversity, farm youth are doing as well as and even generally better than nonfarm youth on measures of high school success. How is this possible?

Using theory based on social capital and life course models, the study explains this result in terms of the distinctive social resources of farm family. These include the collective nature of farm family life, social support and ties to relatives, the family’s connections via parents to community institutions such as the school, church, and civic organization, as well as the social ties of children in the school.

The empirical results of analyses for the book, Children of the Land (University of Chicago Press, 2000: recipient of the 2000/2002 William J. Goode Award, presented by the American Sociological Association’s Section on Family), generally provide strong support for this interpretation. The findings are listed in the order of the “linking processes,” as listed in the model diagram.

2. Family relations. Farm children are more involved in joint activity with parents which fosters a sense of personal significance and responsibility. Especially when they aspire to life in the country and on a farm, they are more highly identified with father and mother. Despite evidence of strong parent attachment, farm adolescents experience more autonomy over the teen years than nonfarm youth. Out of these experiences, we find that farm youth are more likely to excel in school and in social activities at school. They are unlikely to be involved in problem behavior.

3. Productive roles and values. Farm children are more involved in paid earning activities and in unpaid chores, when compared to nonfarm youth; and they tend to contribute more of their earnings to the family, regardless of family economic standing. Farm boys and girls who earn money tend to be highly regarded by their parents, and are looked to for advice and good judgment. Productive roles in farm families engender feelings of personal significance, more than in any other setting, and out of this comes a sense of mastery. Materialistic values are not correlated with the productive roles of farm youth, whereas these values are more highly correlated with the consumer orientation of nonfarm adolescents.

4. Ties to grandparents. Over 40 percent of grandparents are important in the lives of their grandchildren, and we find that actively involved grandparents do many different activities with these children — mentoring, confidante, guidance, companion, emotional support, etc. Children who have close grandparents are more likely to achieve success in the high school years than children who lack such ties, but the role of grandparents is particularly noteworthy in a group of children who have been labelled “vulnerable.” They have done worse than expected by the 12th grade — these children are not likely to have access to significant grandparents. Some are single-parent children who have lost connections to their grandparents, others are grandchildren whose parents do not get along with their own parents. This is one example of “cumulative disadvantage.”

5. Parent connections to community life and institutions, church, school, and civic groups. Nonfarm families score highest on social isolation, and farm families rank highest on social integration in all respects. Isolation is virtually nil among full-time farm families, increases slightly among part-time farm families and the displaced families, increases even more among parents who were only born on farms, and typifies a majority of the nonfarm households, regardless of education, income, and duration of residence. Connected families have parents in leadership positions, and their children are likely to prosper in the academic, social, and athletic dimensions of school life.

For example, farm children are most likely to aspire to community leadership, a rare goal among adolescents. This process evolves from their own community involvement and the example of civic-minded parents who have leadership roles. The incipient stage of this process involves the civic leadership of parents. Active parents engender active children, especially when the generational bond is emotionally strong.

6. Children’s roles in school, community, and church. This involvement is highly predictive of academic and social success among youth, and it is strongly related to the social involvement of parents. Active children are among those who are doing better than one would expect on the basis of family background. They are not likely to be involved in problem behavior or deviant groups.

Selected Citations

Robertson, Elizabeth B., Glen H. Elder, Jr., Martie L. Skinner, and Rand D. Conger. 1991. “The Costs and Benefits of Social Support in Families.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 53: 403-416 (Finalist, Reuben Hill Award, 1992).

Elder, Glen H., Jr., Rand D. Conger, E. Michael Foster, and Monika Ardelt. 1992. “Families Under Economic Pressure.” Journal of Family Issues 13(1): 5-37.

Conger, Rand D., Glen H. Elder, Jr., in collaboration with Lorenz, Frederick O., Ronald L. Simons, and Les B. Whitbeck. 1994. Families in Troubled Times: Adapting to Change in Rural America. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine DeGruyter.

Conger, Rand D., Xiaojia Ge, Glen H. Elder, Jr., Frederick O. Lorenz, and Ronald L. Simons. 1994. “Economic Stress, Coercive Family Process, and Developmental Problems of Adolescents.” Child Development 65(2): 541-561.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., Laura Rudkin, and Rand D. Conger. 1994. “Intergenerational Continuity and Change in Rural America.” Pp. 30-78 in Adult Intergenerational Relations: Effects of Societal Change, edited by Vern L. Bengtson, K. Warner Schaie, and Linda M. Burton. New York: Springer.

Ge, Xiaojia, Frederick O. Lorenz, Rand D. Conger, Glen H. Elder, Jr., and Ronald L. Simons. 1994. “Trajectories of Stressful Life Events and Depressive Symptoms During Adolescence.” Developmental Psychology 30(4): 467-483.

King, Valarie, and Glen H. Elder, Jr. 1995. “American Children View Their Grandparents: Linked Lives Across Three Rural Generations.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 57(1): 165-178.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., Valarie King, and Rand D. Conger. 1996. “Attachment to Place and Migration Prospects: A Developmental Perspective.” Journal of Research on Adolescence 6(4): 397-425.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., Elizabeth B. Robertson, and Rand D. Conger. 1996. “Fathers and Sons in Rural America: Occupational Choice and Intergenerational Ties Across the Life Course.” Pp. 294-325 in Aging and Generational Relations over the Life Course: A Historical and Cross-Cultural Perspective, edited by Tamara K. Hareven. Berlin: Walter De Gruyter.

Ge, Xiaojia, Rand D. Conger, and Glen H. Elder, Jr. 1996. “Coming of Age Too Early: Pubertal Influences on Girls’ Vulnerability to Psychological Distress.” Child Development 67(6): 3386-3400.

King, Valarie, and Glen H. Elder, Jr. 1997. “The Legacy of Grandparenting: Childhood Experiences with Grandparents and Current Involvement with Grandchildren.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 59(4): 848-859.

King, Valarie, and Glen H. Elder, Jr. 1998. “Perceived Self-Efficacy and Grandparenting.” Journal of Gerontology 53B(5): S249-S257.

King, Valarie, and Glen H. Elder, Jr. 1999. “Are Religious Grandparents More Involved Grandparents?” Journal of Gerontology 54B(6): S317-S328.

Lorenz, Frederick O., Glen H. Elder, Jr., Wan-Ning Bao, K.A.S. Wickrama, and Rand D. Conger. 2000. “After Farming: Emotional Health of Farm, Non-Farm, and Displaced Farm Couples.” Rural Sociology 65(1): 50-71.

Ge, Xiaojia, Rand D. Conger, and Glen H. Elder, Jr. 2001.  “The Relation between Puberty and Psychological Distress in Adolescent Boys.” Journal of Research on Adolescence 11(1): 49-70.

Kim, Kee J., Rand D. Conger, Fred O. Lorenz, and Glen H. Elder, Jr. 2001. “Parent-Adolescent Reciprocity in Negative Affect and its Relation to Early Adult Social Development.” Developmental Psychology 37(6): 775.

McGrath, Daniel J., Raymond R. Swisher, Glen H. Elder, Jr., and Rand D. Conger. 2001. “Breaking New Ground: Diverse Routes to College in Rural America.” Rural Sociology 66(2): 244-267.Wickrama, K.A.S., Frederick O. Lorenz, Lora Ebert Wallace, Laknath Pieris, Rand D. Conger, and Glen H. Elder, Jr. 2001. “Family Influence on Physical Health During the Middle Years: The Case of Onset of Hypertension.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 63(2:May): 527-539.

Crosnoe, Robert, and Glen H. Elder, Jr. 2002. “Adolescent Twins and Emotional Distress: The Inter-Related Influence of Non-Shared Environment and Social Structure.” Child Development 73(6): 1761-1774.

Crosnoe, Robert, and Glen H. Elder, Jr. 2002. “Life Course Transitions, the Generational Stake, and Grandparent-Grandchild Relationships.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 64(November): 1089-1096.

Kim, Kee Jeong, Rand D. Conger, Glen H. Elder, Jr., and Frederick O. Lorenz. 2003. “Reciprocal Influences between Stressful Life Events and Adolescent Internalizing and Externalizing Problems.” Child Development 74(1): 127-143.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., and Rand D. Conger. 2002. Children of the land: Adversity and success in Rural America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (recipient of the 2000/2002 William J. Goode Award, American Sociological Association [Section on Family]).