by David Hart
The African proverb said it best: It takes a village to raise a child.
The American problem, though, is that the village is now a metropolis; American society has grown so much, so fast, that it has outpaced many of its children. In the rural South, thousands of poor families struggle to earn a living and raise their children without the support systems available to their urban and suburban cousins.
It's a problem that UGA professors Gene Brody and Zolinda Stoneman have tackled head-on -- in the families themselves. In an ongoing, large-scale research project, they're exploring the ways that rural black families cope with, and overcome, adversity.
"We teach many things in our society. One of the things we don't teach -- or don't do a very good job of teaching -- is how families work and how to rear children," said Brody, a research professor of child and family development.
It's not that social scientists haven't studied the problems of American families. It's which families they've studied. Most of the research and recommendations for family-oriented policies have focused almost exclusively on city dwellers.
"We've really based a lot of [societal] interventions on what we know about middle-class families and predominantly white families," said Stoneman, director of the University Affiliated Program for Persons with Developmental Disabilities. "We need to better understand what the strengths are of rural African-American families because an intervention is only going to work if we build on those strengths. If people have not been studied, then we really don't have a basis for developing sensitive prevention or intervention programs."
Until recently, little research had been done on the specific problems of rural black families. It wasn't until 1992 that agricultural economists Joyce Allen of the University of Illinois and Ralph Christy of Cornell University compiled their landmark study specifically about rural blacks. According to their research:
More than a million African Americans live in rural areas, and 95 percent of them live in the rural South.
Almost 30 percent of two-parent rural black families live in poverty, more than three times the rate of rural white families and almost three times the rate of urban black families.
Their median income is not quite two-thirds of their urban counterparts and barely half that of rural white families.
On average, rural blacks are less educated than any other group and have a higher rate of unemployment; 60 percent work in unskilled jobs.
Because of these demographic differences, because of the differences in family structure -- rural black families are more often two-parent families and have larger extended families -- and because family researchers "don't know as much about how to help children of these families," Brody and Stoneman undertook their project after 11 years of studying white, middle-class families.
The first results of their project, which were published in the May issue of the journal Child Development, trace the links between financial resources and the academic performance of children. It's not as simple as it sounds. What they've found so far is that it's not just the money that matters most.
"Prior to our work, people would say poverty causes lower academic performance," Brody said. In contrast, Brody and Stoneman looked at the ways in which poverty influences family relationships, which in turn affect children's achievement.
The "Family Process"
They built their project around systems theory, which holds that people in a family and the relationships they have with one another are interdependent: What happens to one influences all the others.
Using this idea, they came up with a "family process model" that describes these connections.
"We expected that parents who had more financial resources would be less depressed and more optimistic," Brody said. "We thought parents with this brighter outlook on life would have happier marriages, help and support each other more in taking care of their children and fight less over child-related issues. We reasoned that, if parents behaved like this, their children would learn to control themselves. Self-controlled children would, in turn, do better in school and be better adjusted personally and socially."
Although many children who grow up in poverty fare poorly, not all do. There must be some mitigating factors, and those are what Brody and Stoneman set out to find.
Since there was little previous research on rural blacks to build on, just getting started involved three particular challenges: how to collect data, from whom to collect it and who should do the collecting.
"Not only do we not know very much about African-American families, but since we developed most of our research instruments on whiteâ families, they're pretty specific -- or at least the hunch was they might be pretty specific -- to that culture," Stoneman said. For this reason, focus groups composed of rural blacks from around Georgia helped evaluate and re-work existing assessment tools for the rural black community.
"It was a collaborative effort of developing our research methodology between what we knew and what members of the community knew," Brody said. "All this work paid off because we were able to develop a battery of instruments and procedures that is very tight scientifically, andâ we're getting lots of requests from researchers across the nation for copies of these instruments so they then could try to use them with people in their areas."
With their research methodology planned, the next step was to recruit the subjects: 100 two-parent rural families with a child aged 9 to 12. To locate the families, Brody and Stoneman went from county to county, getting to know community leaders and gaining their trust. They visited churches and businesses and advertised on local radio stations to invite people to participate. And it turned out people were interested.
"We were pleased with how eager people were to participate in this study," Stoneman said. "They were extremely open, and this was surprising in light of the fact that some people had suggested that African-American fathers, especially, might be reluctant to participate in a research study."
Even with a strong sample of subjects and a scientifically sound methodology, collecting the data was still a labor-intensive matter. Research assistants had to visit each family three times a year. Three hours each time. In the family's home. And ideally, unlike Brody and Stoneman, they would be black.
"That was, for us, one additional protection against some cultural difference causing us to miss something or to incorrectly interpret something that the family either said or did," Stoneman said. Black undergraduate and graduate students from departments and colleges across the UGA campus -- from psychology, law, business, social work and others -- agreed to join the project.
"By having black researchers going into black families' homes, I think we've cut down one barrier," said Chris McCrary, a graduate student in applied psychology who joined the project as an undergraduate. "It's just a reality. I think a black family tends to be more open with another black person coming into their home than they are with a white researcher."
It was important to develop rapport with the families, to put them at ease and to make them comfortable with the research process, Brody said. "This helped ensure that the family members would act naturally and respond honestly during data collection, and made it less likely that families would drop out of the study," he said.
Perhaps more significantly, it also helped the families feel that their participation in the study was important and that something meaningful would result from it. It was not just another program being imposed on them by the majority culture, McCrary said.
"With all the families I visited, their reactions toward us as researchers were real positive," he said. "There were even several instances where families asked us to stay for dinner, or asked us to come back down on holidays for cook-outs."
After completing two months of training in data collection and coding techniques, the interviewers, traveling in male-female pairs, began the on-site research: They collected information through reports of the children's school performance, conducted questionnaires and videotaped families in several group activities.
And that's where the Trouble began.
Trouble with a capital "T."
The research teams videotaped parents interacting with their children and each other while playing Trouble, a children's board game by Gilbert Industries, and discussing their ideas about what helps children from poor communities to succeed in life. These discussions were particularly valuable because they provided the family members' perspectives on the topic being studied.
Playing a board game may seem an unusual way to collect data, but for Brody and Stoneman it was ideal. It provided a casual setting for family interaction -- and it provided a glimpse of personal interaction that questionnaires alone could not reveal.
All the research instruments -- questionnaires and family activities -- were carefully chosen with the help of the focus groups. "You have to walk a tightrope, when you do this kind of work and go into people's homes, between designing a situation that elicits interaction but is not too threatening so that people become more guarded," Brody said. "And in our 17 years of doing this kind of work, one of the things we're convinced of is that after a while people have a difficult time trying to create good impressions for the camera."
The focus groups had warned them that videotaping might prove too invasive or threatening for these families, but since no one had actually done it before, they went ahead and tried it, Stoneman said.
And it worked well.
"A lot of the things that we sort of believed wouldn't work, actually did, and some of the instruments that we thought would probably do just fine, didn't," Stoneman said. "It's been very much a learning experience."
The project's corps of student interviewers has so far logged more than 70,000 miles visiting rural towns throughout Georgia. The data they gather on their travels are beginning to provide answers to Brody and Stoneman's questions. These initial results describe how financial resources -- or lack of them -- affect children's performance in school. Money itself, it appears, is not the issue. But when financial pressures place additional stress on parents, the "family process" often begins to erode; children can suffer psychologically and educationally as the stress trickles down.
"In many families, the parents were more depressed and less optimistic," Brody said. "When these feelings kept the parents from being able to work together pleasantly in caring for their children, the children were unlikely to develop self-control, and this lack of self-control hindered their achievement in school as well as their personal and social adjustment."
But feelings of depression and non-optimism did not always keep parents from being able to cooperate in caring for their children, Stoneman said. When the parents worked together to lead the family in the same direction, the children were more likely to learn to control themselves and to do better in school.
"One of the things we know is that couples fight about three main things: sex, money and kids," Brody said. "So it's very important for these parents to be going in the same direction in terms of where they want their kids to go and how they're going to get them there."
The researchers were impressed by how well some of these families functioned despite adversity. Often both parents worked, and many worked more than one job just to make ends meet. "Sometimes the parents were passing like ships in the night, which meant that for their families to work successfully, they really had to be working together, much more so than middle class families," Brody said. "And there's enough strain on middle class families, so you can imagine that the strain increases geometrically on these families."
Added to this stress is something that rural families face more often than do those living in urban areas: They are cut off from community resources. Although it isn't incorporated into their research yet, Brody said they intend to show how being cut off either formally or informally from such resources affects these families, especially the children, in social development. Living in isolated areas, children often spend a lot of time on buses traveling to and from school, and not in activities that urban children might take for granted.
"One of the biggest concerns for me, having grown up in one of these areas, is the lack of programs, things like Boy Scouts and Boys Clubs, just lots of different after-school or outside-of-school activities," McCrary said. "Living in a rural area kind of takes away from having the exposure to the programs and activities that kids within an urban metropolitan area would have exposure to."
A Struggle to Succeed
As Brody and Stoneman continue their study of the structure of rural black families, they hope to provide information that social policy makers -- and the families themselves -- can use to improve their children's odds for success.
"It's unrealistic to think that we're going to be able to provide the financial resources to all the families that need it," Brody said. "But we can provide resources that at the minimum assist people with medical and dental care which in turn creates more healthy parents and children, which makes it a heck of a lot easier to organize families."
Relieving such stress could ease the parents psychologically and, in turn, help their relationships with their kids. Some changes would require little if any additional money; for example, inexpensive and informal neighborhood networks can spread the word about successful parenting techniques and help families through crises -- helping fulfill the African proverb about the village raising a child. "There's a hunger for information in the community as to how to create those networks and support systems," Brody said.
But far and away the most beneficial program is already out there: education. Children eventually become parents themselves -- and children who stay in school longer become better parents.
"To the extent we can help kids stay in school a little bit longer, they will be better parents, and then their children in turn will benefit," Brody said. "The benefits cascade on an intergenerational level."
A more immediate impact of this research may be to shed some stereotypes about black families, especially about poverty and the role of the father.
"We gathered a lot of information that supports a lot of positive things within the family," McCrary said. "To me that's rewarding in the sense that, in spite of everything you tend to hear in the media and through whatever sources, there are a lot of good things that happen within the black family."
One example is the perception that most black families are poor. Although the first results from this project were published in a special issue of Child Development on poverty, Stoneman said their families come from a wide range of income levels.
"Researchers have sometimes recruited people through avenues that yield them very poor families, and then said, 'Aha! I see this difference. It must be because these families are African-Americans,'" she said. "It's very important to disentangle culture from poverty, and that's something about which we're taking care in our research."
Stoneman said she also hopes their study will help dispel the stereotype of black fathers as absentee parents. Their research found that doesn't represent a lot of rural black households.
"There are many, many African-American fathers who are extremely committed to being parents and extremely committed to their families and are tremendously important citizens of their communities," Stoneman said. "One of the things that I believe will come out of this work is a strong endorsement of many African-American men who are extremely competent fathers."
As researchers learn more about rural black families, it will be harder for stereotypes such as these to stand. Facts will replace conjectures, making it easier to help these families turn their struggles into success.