The Family Life Project Releases Synthesis of Early Findings

NICHD-supported Research Aims to Understand the Role of Rural Poverty in Child Development

A mother and son walking down a rural road.

Twenty percent of children in the United States grow up in rural communities, often experiencing higher rates of poverty and geographic isolation. Poverty is known to be stressful for young children and is associated with poor developmental outcomes. These effects can start to appear as early as 15 months of age. But the how and why—what scientists call the “mechanisms”—that lead to these poor outcomes have remained largely unknown.

To learn more, the NICHD’s Child Development and Behavior Branch funded the Family Life Project External Web Site Policy in 2003 to study childhood development in rural areas. The Project is led by Drs. Lynne Vernon-Feagans and Martha Cox at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Drs. Mark Greenberg and Nan Crouter at Pennsylvania State University.

A recently released monograph reports the first 3 years of results from the Project (PMID: 24147448). The findings help illustrate the critical role that parents and caregivers play—particularly in rural settings—in lessening the effects of poverty on children’s outcomes.

Previous studies on poverty and child development offered researchers a useful starting point, but the research had limitations. Only rarely did studies of infant and child development actually begin when such development does, at birth. Furthermore, most of the studies on child poverty focused on adolescents in urban settings. The studies seldom focused on children in rural areas, where isolation and limited resources might make life different from what children experience in cities.

The NICHD’s Family Life Project is designed to fill these knowledge gaps. To learn more about the study and its preliminary findings, select a link below.

Study Overview
Data Collection
Future of the Study
More Information

Study Overview

The Family Life Project began with 1,292 newborn infants and their families, recruited in 2003 and 2004. Families were enrolled in the study at the hospital, on the day after their infant was born. Researchers then visited participants in the home five times during the child’s first 3 years. They also visited each child’s outside-the-home care facility four times during the same time period and completed seven telephone visits.

Study families lived in six rural counties, three each in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, where major industries have left the areas, along with well-paying jobs.

Both the counties and the families were chosen so that they represent the much wider population of rural families in the United States. None of the counties were near a large urban area, and none included a town larger than 50,000 people. More than one-half of the children in each selected county were eligible for free or reduced school lunch. The North Carolina counties had a large African American population, and the Pennsylvania counties were primarily white.

In virtually all of these families, one or more household members held a job (often with few benefits and non-standard or irregular work hours), and some held more than one such job. Nearly 80% of the mothers in the study had at least a high school education, and 15% had a college education, which suggest that high school graduation and employment alone do not protect against poverty in rural America.


Data Collection

To understand how rural poverty affects child development, the researchers developed a “cumulative risk index” for each family. This index included a measure of the families’ poverty as a proportion of the federal poverty threshold.

The researchers also factored in other variables to the risk index, including:

  • The “timing” of the poverty, meaning when the poverty began in the family and how long the poverty lasted. For example, some families’ income might have been very low at the time their infants were born and continued to be very low at every visit. Other families might have dipped into poverty at only one or two visits because of a job loss.
  • Social factors of maternal education, consistently partnered parents, employment hours, and job prestige.
  • Environmental factors of geographic isolation, neighborhood safety, and household density.

At each home visit, the researchers observed parenting interactions (positive and negative) between the mother and child. Positive parenting interactions were ones in which the parent was sensitive and responsive to her child’s needs and expressed positive feelings toward her child. These were animated interactions that stimulated the child’s development. Negative parenting interactions were ones in which the parent expressed harsh, negative feelings toward her child, or otherwise exhibited harsh and controlling behavior toward her child, with the parent’s agenda dominating. Also at each home visit, the researchers observed how the mother spoke to her child—specifically, the number of different words she used and the complexity of her language during a shared picture book session. 

The children themselves were tested for behavior, language development, and executive function. Executive function is a particularly important measure because it involves self-regulation, working memory, and self-control. Executive function is what can make children able to sit in school, pay attention, and control their behavior; high executive function is associated with school achievement in the early elementary grades.


Preliminary Findings

With 1,123 (87%) of the original 1,292 families still involved 3 years into the study, the Family Life Project is the largest study of childhood development ever attempted within the context of rural poverty.  

The cumulative risk scores highlight the challenges parents and their children face.

  • Many of the families were “working poor,” with one or more household member holding a low-wage job with few benefits and non-standard or irregular work hours (for example, the late shift at a large retail outlet or a filling station).
  • African Americans had twice the poverty rates, lived in deeper poverty, and had much worse cumulative risk scores, even though their education levels were similar to the non-African American families.
  • Contrary to expectations, geographic isolation was more strongly associated with higher neighborhood safety among very poor and near poor rural families, likely the result of less isolated families living in small-city housing projects with higher crime rates.

In their monograph, the investigators stressed that the questions they seek to answer in the Family Life Project are complex and that their results are only preliminary. However, the data already show that the cumulative risk scores—the combined measure of depth and timing of poverty, social risk, and environmental risk—predict behavior problems, behavior competence, and executive functioning in the children.

  • A key finding is that executive functioning was associated with the kind of care children were receiving and with the stress associated with poverty.
    • Positive parenting led to better child behavior and executive function, while negative parenting led to behavior problems and poorer executive functioning, suggesting that parenting is the primary pathway by which cumulative risk affects the development of executive functioning in children.
    • Positive parenting buffered some of the negative outcomes associated with higher cumulative risk, while negative parenting made those negative outcomes worse.
    • Negative parenting also strongly correlated with high cumulative risk. Very few parents had both high cumulative risk and high positive parenting skills.
  • To understand how the stress of poverty affects development, Family Life Project researchers collected small amounts of saliva from the children during the home visits at 7, 15, and 24 months. They measured the samples for children’s levels of cortisol, a hormone directly related to stress, in response to challenges introduced by the researchers in a home setting. These challenges consisted of, for example, a simple task of getting around a barrier, a presentation of a mask, or removal of a toy. In a Project paper published in 2011, the researchers reported significantly higher levels of cortisol in the children in poverty, which predicted lower executive functioning at 3 years of age (PMID: 22026915). Good parenting was related to lower levels of cortisol in the children, which related to better outcomes in cognitive development. Again however, the researchers observed fewer positive parenting interactions in families with the lower incomes.  
  • Researchers also observed the following about higher cumulative risk scores:
    • Higher cumulative risk was strongly associated with lower parental/caregiver language scores on standardized tests, lower child language scores on standardized tests, and lower maternal language complexity in interactions with the child. 
    • Maternal language complexity was particularly important in understanding the relationship between cumulative risk and children’s language development at 36 months. 
  • Findings related to poverty’s effects on early language development included the following:
    • Mothers who worked non-standard hours spoke the least to their children, which then led the children’s language scores to drop. In these cases, the non-standard work hours seem to place extra stresses on family processes and create early barriers to learning.
    • However, if in the childcare setting, the caregiver talked to the children frequently, their scores on standardized tests were basically the same as those of children from homes where mothers spoke a lot to their children. In this way, caregivers in childcare settings can have a positive effect on children’s language development.

These observations raise important questions. For example, are there turning points where the deficits created in early life can be remedied?


Future of the Study

“The Family Life Project paints a vivid portrait of what it is like to be born into and grow up in rural poverty in the United States,” explained James Griffin, Ph.D., Deputy Chief of NICHD’s Child Development and Behavior Branch. “To date, the research findings demonstrate both the high number of risk factors these children face and the important role their parents play in how these risk factors affect their development. Because of this study, much more is now known about what aspects of parenting and family life affect development.”

Today, the Family Life Project has complete data sets on about 85% of the original study families, through the children’s third grade year. The study continues to collect data on these families through phone interviews, and the researchers hope to follow the children as they transition to middle school and into adolescence.

The data from the first 3 years of the children’s lives will soon be available to qualified researchers as a public access data set located online, at the University of Michigan’s Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) External Web Site Policy website.

In the future, researchers aim to build on these early findings and learn more about the risks associated with rural poverty and how to develop effective intervention strategies to improve outcomes for these children.


More Information

To learn more about the Family Life Project, select one of the links below.

Originally Posted: March 18, 2014


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