The concept of rural families is, at best, a slippery one. This is because both aspects—family and rural—are today continuously being redefined. Further, in taking an international perspective, how family is defined varies regionally and from nation to nation. How family and rurality are defined differs depending on the theoretical context as well. For example, feminist thinkers have reconstructed what constitutes a family and what rural work for women involves.
Even the U.S. Census Bureau had to rethink its 1990 definition of family, "a domestic group of two or more people united by bonds of blood, adoption or marriage" (U.S. Bureau of Census 1990). In the 2000 census, families were allowed much more freedom to self-define; even the overall designation of "Households and Families" changed to "Families and Living Arrangements."
Janet Bokemeier (1997), president of the Rural Sociology Society, says of families: "Families live together; share economic resources; act as cooperative, caring social units; and provide environments for the emotional, social and economic well being of family members." She goes on to talk about how families share a space—the home or domicile or unit of co-residence. This allows for the wide variety of new forms of families, which range from single-parent households including fathers as primary caregivers, cohabitating families, blended families, gay and lesbian families, foster families, and traditional nuclear and extended families (Gottfried and Gottfried 1994).
Whichever definition is used to describe rural families, it becomes clear that the rural family that was defined in the mid-twentieth century—the intact, large, hardworking, dirt-smudged, patriarchal farm family—if it exists at all today, is only one of a diverse and rich variety of families that live in rural regions of all countries.
The factors that seem to define families in most nations are economic, social, and emotional support among several individuals who live together in a household (or even a tribal village). Judith Stacey (1991), who has studied postmodern families, says it very well: "No longer is there a single culturally dominant family pattern, like the modern one, to which the majority of Americans conform and most of the rest aspires. Instead Americans today have crafted a multiplicity of family and household arrangements that we inhabit uneasily and reconstitute frequently in response to changing personal and occupational circumstances."
Any discussion of rural families requires first a definition of rural and some debate about the difference between rural versus urban lifestyles. Most discussions of rural populations in the United States define rural settings as encompassing those people living in places with fewer than 2,500 residents, or what has been called open countryside. In contrast, urban areas are defined as places that are composed of 2,500 or more residents in a region of at least 50,000 residents (U. S. Bureau of the Census 2002). A simple explanation of a rural-urban contrast does not fully define rurality or begin to demonstrate the various family lifestyles between the two.
According to O. William Farley (1982) and his colleagues, rural families have, over time, continued to function in a predominantly conservative style. These families participate in many religious and educational activities. The family often uses farmland for much of its income and resources. The nuclear family with traditional parental roles continues to exist. These families tend to spend more quality time together.
However, many families in rural areas often conceal their needs and disadvantages, which in turn does not allow their strengths to be fully known. Said differently, rural and urban areas, or the families that live in these respective areas, can no longer be characterized by definitions that use population density as the standard. Rather, the lifestyles and economic conditions of these families should be emphasized. No one universally accepted definition of rural areas exists; there is a great variance among rural communities, and poverty in rural areas tends to be long-standing and generational (Ginsberg 1998).
The great variation in what defines rural communities (and thus rural families) is important. Although the most often conceived and discussed impression of the rural family might be represented by the farming family, Leon Ginsberg's useful view could include people living in remote Zimbabwean villages, First Nations people living on rural reservations in the United States or Canada, native Alaskans in an iced-in polar village, the forest dwellers of Brazil, nomadic Bedouin tent dwellers in rural deserts of Northern Africa, citrus plantation families in Belize, or high Himalayan shepherd families in Nepal or Tibet. Is there any common ground for this wide divergence of family clusters and clans? If there is, it is that they are rural; they are not city dwellers, they occupy less dense living spaces, and they live closer to the land (whether they farm it or not) than their urban counterparts.
The Gemeinschaft concept (a community or society characterized by relationships) of sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies has traditionally been used to describe the small town, a community rooted in a sense of mutuality (efforts of two or more people to act together in ultimate harmony to achieve benefits for each), common destiny, and the resulting common bonds and obligations. Personal relationships are more informal and relaxed.
The advantages of rural life for families have sprung from this Gemeinschaft view: the interdependence and mutuality among extended family, clan, or tribal members; the harmony with nature; the link with friendship and neighboring networks; the strengths provided by rural places of worship; and the intrinsic satisfaction of working on the land and seeing an end product, the harvest of one's labors. A newer positive factor that now attracts young families to rural communities is the relative safety of rural schools and playgrounds as compared to urban institutions and parks.
Disadvantages for rural families have been viewed primarily as the lacks: lack of social and cultural opportunities, of high-paying jobs, of qualified teachers, of a larger worldview, of and adequate health care and social services.
Changes in Rural Life
From 1900 throughout the first half of the twentieth century, a massive migration from rural to urban areas took place in most developed countries. Even in less developed countries, farm families fled to cities for economic survival. Between 1960 and 1980 in the United States and Canada, a turnaround occurred (Fulton et al. 1997) in which families began to return to rural areas, attracted by the slower pace of life and the ideal of quiet rural life.
The family farm crisis of the 1980s slowed that trend between 1980 and the early 1990s. Early census configurations from the U.S. 2000 census suggest that another trend, a return of large populations to nonmetropolitan areas, is underway.
Although the rural family is difficult to define from an international perspective, clearly it is not the cherished mid-twentieth century prototype: intact, large (five to twelve farm-laboring children), tradition-bound, earth-bound, living in a rambling farmhouse on inherited acreage. The rural family of the beginning of the twenty-first century is smaller, lives a more mechanized life, is, at the least, exposed to modern media and technologies, is more likely to hold nonfarm jobs or jobs not related to farms, is more educated, and is in many ways more like its urban counterpart than the rural family of one hundred years ago.
Poverty and Economic Struggle
Understanding rural poverty has never been easy. Internationally, one out of every five individuals is affected by poverty (Lipton and Ravallion 1995). Whether a person is poor is influenced by whether one is male or female, cultural background, where one lives (rural versus urban), and age. We now know that in families, children and mothers usually are more likely to be impoverished than are fathers (Khan 2000). In small country areas, minority and small church groups face more poverty than the majority groups. Rural families have often had more economic challenges than their urban counterparts. According to Mahmood Hasan Khan (2000) most of the poverty in the world (63%) is located in rural areas. Internationally, in China and Bangladesh, rural poverty has at times increased to 90 percent and has fluctuated from 70 to 90 percent in parts of Africa.
Agricultural centers are characteristic of rural communities that are making limited industrial or professional progress (MacNair 1999). Agricultural companies in these settings often are combined with small processing plants and distribution centers. Small businessmen generally provide the local leadership and traditionally have family ties to the community. Endeavors to change or bring in new industry are often attempted by local businessmen and women and community planners, but these efforts are short lived and seldom successful. Conversely, religious institutions may provide resources, hope, and a sense of working together against the poverty that is indicative of rural life for many families.
Poverty, historically, has been an ongoing theme for many rural families both in the United States and internationally. In the United States rural poverty endures on small family farms, in remote county communities, and in a multitude of trailer parks (Fitchen 1998).
Ginsberg (1998) reports that poverty for minority populations remained about the same during the last decade of the twentieth century. The overall poverty rate in the United States in 1990 was mostly linked to whites: 71.3 percent of the people living in poverty are white, 25 percent are African American, and 5.6 percent are Hispanic. The rural population stands in exception to these general figures; poverty rates are altogether different among rural populations. The poverty rate for rural whites is 13.5 percent; for rural African Americans, 40.8 percent; for rural Hispanics, 32 percent; and for rural Native Americans, 30 percent. These statistics take on new meaning when rural families are headed by women.
In rural areas families with a female head of household are generally very poor (Lichter and Eggebeen 1992). Families headed by women in rural settings are living in poverty, and this population has increased internationally by almost 50 percent in the last two decades of the twentieth century. This growing poverty has many implications for all rural families. These statistics, however, may have different implications culturally. For example, Brazilian children have a 20 percent better chance of living longer when the family income is in the hands of rural mothers rather than in the hands of fathers (Speth 1997).
In the case of African Americans and poverty, rural and urban differences are related to the increased frequency of mother-headed families in rural settings. According to Hayward Derrick Horton and Beverly Lundy Allen (1998), family status for African Americans continues to be one of the main influences in understanding poverty status. For these families, marital status affects the chances for living in poverty. However, being a mother-headed family was not a significant factor in relation to increased poverty rates in 1980. By 1990 the poverty rates for African-American mother-headed families had dramatically increased. In the United States since 1980, African Americans have constantly had a total family income that is approximately one-third that of white families. According to Horton and Allen, this trend of poverty has remained consistent whether the African-American families were rural (35%) or urban (27%) in 1990 and continues to be a problem for rural families and their children.
Among children, the rates for rural minorities remain three times higher than for rural whites in the United States. By 1997 over three million rural children were growing up in families with income below the poverty level. The overall poverty rate for all rural children is 22.4 percent, compared with rates for rural African-American and Hispanic children, which are two times that rate at over 46 percent. In addition, approximately 62 percent of poor rural children grow up in single-parent families. More than 50 percent of these rural families in poverty are headed by mothers or female caregivers (Poverty and Well-Being in Rural America 1999).
Those rural families who are not considered poor still face a profound economic struggle. Sociologists have documented the dynamics of the changes in rural life as farming has moved from family-owned small enterprise to the large complex industrial and corporate farming giants ( Jackson-Smith 1999). These marked changes in the economic organization of food production over the last fifty years have left farm families bewildered, depressed (both economically and emotionally), and frequently deprived of long-held family lands. More rural families have members working in nonagricultural jobs commuting further to solidify family income, or spending longer spans of time living away (either in urban industrial areas, offshore drilling sites, or remote foresting camps) in order to provide for their rurally based families. Yamu Karewa, an instructor in the Social Work Program at Bennett College in North Carolina, reports that in her native small rural Zimbabwean village, men frequently go to work in the cities to support their families. Texas and California are greatly affected by young male Mexican laborers who come to the United States for temporary work to support their families in rural villages in remote regions of Mexico.
This temporary absence of fathers has a profound effect on the families left behind in villages. Children grow up disconnected from their absent dads, and rural women are forced to assume roles previously held by male heads of households—disciplinarian, role model, family carpenter, decision maker. Eldest children frequently become begin to act as parents as well.
Changes in Gender Roles
Feminist writers have begun to examine the roles of women who live on farms or in rural towns and villages (Wright 1995; Fortmann et al. 1997). They have focused on nonpaid and often undervalued work done by women (housework, gardening, milking cows or goats, raising chickens, corn grinding, food preparation and preservation, laundry work, and garment construction, for example). A new view of the vital contributions rural women are making to family economics has emerged in the last two decades. The invisible farmers have now come to the forefront (Haney and Knowles 1988).
Rural women in Canada have taken a proactive view, organizing themselves to have a voice in addressing issues on their training needs (Rock 1996) and on their economic and social concerns. "In their search for solutions, (rural) women are themselves becoming the leading edge for positive change in rural Canada" (Wolfe-Keddie 1996).
Rural women have also entered the marketplace and are more likely to hold part-time or even full-time jobs that help to stabilize the family economy (Wright 1995). This increase in out-of-home labor by rural women creates problems of inadequate daycare, limited reliable transportation, and need for afterschool programs in rural areas for the children of working mothers.
Pace and Rhythm of Rural Life
One constant of rural regions and one continuing attraction for urban-to-rural migrant families is the slower pace and the rural rhythm of life. Rural families have traditionally lived at a slower pace than that of urbanites. Centers of life continue to be the village marketplace (whether that is a farmer's market, an African marketplace bazaar, a flea market, or a town square); the town café or eating place; and the sports arena (Friday night football in the United States, sandlot soccer in Mexico, or the frozen pond in Canada and the northern rural United States). Rural families continue to live closer to the land, to nature, and to the changing seasons. The rhythm of rural life has a slower beat, and involves different sensations: aromas, textures (newmown hay), and sounds. Rural families are more likely to pause and listen to the sounds of dogs barking, roosters crowing, nightingales or parrots or owl sounds.
Whether rural families retain more quality time to spend together is up for debate. Certainly Nintendo and Saturday morning cartoons courtesy of satellite dishes have reached even the remotest rural areas. But family farming activities and family outdoor activities (family hog and calf raising as 4-H and Future Farmers of America [FFA] activities, for example) continue to be cherished activities among rural families.
In summary, the definitions of rural families have been evolving over many generations. A global perspective on families who live in rural areas must consider the wide diversity that is found from region to region and nation to nation. Issues of poverty, gender, and social justice for rural populations are issues that must not be overlooked when examining international rural families. Resilience—an incredible ability to survive against odds—continues to be the constant and defining feature among rural families.
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linda b. morales