/ Rural Families Speak: Faith, Resiliency & Life Satisfaction among Low-income Mothers


Faith in the lives of rural, low-income mothers is explored using quantitative data from the multi-state study, "Rural Families Speak."[3] The study uses a resiliency theoretical perspective. Findings suggest that faith, expressed as religious and spiritual practices, is a resiliency factor in the lives of these mothers and in their life satisfaction.

Key Words: faith, rural, resiliency

    1. Bonnie Braun is Extension Family Specialist, University of Maryland,, College Park, Maryland, 20742. Electronic mail may be sent via Internet to BBraun@umd.edureturn to text

    2. J. R. Marghi is a Master's candidate in the Department of Family Studies, University of Maryland,, College Park, Maryland, 20742.return to text

    3. Supported by the Agricultural Experiment Stations and Cooperative Extension in California, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oregon, and Wyoming, and by Ohio University, Maryland Department of Human Resources, U.S. Department of Agriculture (NRICGP200I-35401-10215, NRICGP2002-35401-1159I) and the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences.return to text

    Faith—belief in something of substance unseen. Does such belief play a role in the challenging lives of families living with the chronic stressor of economic poverty? Can faith contribute to the ability of these families to manage the strains, stressors and crises that occur in their lives? Focusing on faith as a resiliency factor is not common among social scientists. Faith was not the primary emphasis of family social science researchers conducting a multi-state, multi-year study of rural, low-income families. However, indicators of faith as a resiliency factor arose during the first wave of interviews in response to the question: "Who are the people most important to you and your family?" Many said, "God."

    Taking a cue from the mother's own words, faith, as a factor in coping with stressors, became a line of investigation in the lives of the rural families studied. The examination of faith builds on a resiliency theoretical perspective used for analysis of other data from the multi-state study of rural families. Vandergriff-Avery (2001) found that religion and spiritual faith surfaced as a source of strength, protection, and recovery for some families.

    According to Chandler and Campbell (2002) it is especially appropriate to study rural families where the faith community is central to a traditional way of life (Fischer, 1982, p. 114). Chandler and Campbell reported that religion and spirituality are important to both African-Americans and European-Americans although attendance at religious services and participation in religious activities are more common among younger, female, and African-Americans (Mitchell & Weatherly, 2000, p. 46).

    Findings from this study[4] on faith as a resiliency factor among rural families are intended to (a) inform the work of helping professionals, including those in the faith communities, as they seek to be supportive of low-income families and (b) expand the family science literature by providing previously missing insight into the role of faith in the lives of rural, low-income families.

    Rural Families Speak About Faith

    In 1998, a team of researchers from 15 land-grant universities was authorized by the USDA-affiliated Agricultural Experiment Stations to conduct a unique, multi-state study known as "Rural Families Speak" to understand factors affecting the well-being of rural, low-income families. The research team's goals were to fill a void of knowledge regarding the lived experiences of these families and to inform both public policy and programs. Beginning in 2000, data were collected from the mothers in 415 families living in 24 counties in 14 of the states using common instruments and open-ended questions. The study will continue through 2007.

    Tape-recorded interviews of 60 to 120 minutes were conducted in the native language of the mothers in their homes or private meeting places in the community by trained researchers using semi-structured interview protocols. Interviews were transcribed by each state using a common format and coded by the Oregon State University research team. Quantitative data were entered into SPSS (Version 10.1); qualitative data into WinMax.

    Mothers, aged 18 and older, with at least one child under age 13 and incomes below 200% of poverty, were recruited through programs serving low-income families. Table 1 gives selected demographic/socioeconomic details of the 199 mothers in eleven of the participating states, who were asked faith-related questions in the second wave of data collection.

    The mean age of the mothers is 31. The average number of children is 2.3. Among these mothers, over two thirds are Non-Hispanic White followed by Hispanic/Latina (18%) and African Americans (10%). Not quite half of the mothers (41%) are married with an additional 15% living with a partner. The rest are single, divorced or separated. These are working mothers with 62% employed. Their household income (mother's plus partner's) averaged $1,866 per month or $22,441.

    Mothers answered the "Religion and Spirituality Beliefs" questionnaire, a seven-item instrument with four additional questions in the second wave of the data collection conducted in 2001-2002. Three questions measured spirituality; the rest measured religiosity. The first question established the women's self-identification as a religious or spiritual being. In addition, a five-item, Likert scale assessed life satisfaction as a measure of quality of life. Mothers responded with the option that best described their current level of life satisfaction from very dissatisfied to very satisfied.

    For this study, spirituality was defined as the expression of a connection between the individual and some larger, usually supernatural, reality and measured by evidence of prayer and belief in support, strength and/or guidance from that supernatural reality. Religiosity was defined as the expression of that connection to the supernatural reality via "organized spirituality" or the "practice of spirituality" through experiences that are institutionalized (Marler & Hadaway, 2002, p.295) including attendance at services, participation in other religious activities and giving of time and/or money.

    Table 1. Selected Sample Demographics
    Demographic CharacteristicsMean
    Age of Participants (N = 197)31
    Number of Children Living in Household (N = 199)2.3
    Race (N = 196)Number (Percent)
    Non-Hispanic White133 (67.9)
    Hispanic/Latina36 (18.4)
    African American19(9.7)
    Native American2(1.0)
    Marital Status (N = 199)Number (Percent)
    Single50 (25.1)
    Living w/ Partner30(15.1)
    Currently Working (N = 182)Number (Percent)
    Household Income (N = 180)Mean Income
    Monthly$ 1,866.00
    Yearly$ 22,441.00

    Spirituality and Religiosity

    Mothers were first asked the question, "Are you a religious or spiritual person?" Seventy five percent said yes; twenty five percent said no. Mothers were then asked about benefits from their spiritual life. Of those who said they were a religious or spiritual person, almost all (97%) said they got support from God. Slightly fewer mothers (92%) said that prayer helps followed by agreement among 87% that God's guidance is important. Even among those who did not identify as religious or spiritual, three-fourths said God's guidance was important; two-thirds said they got strength and support from God and half said that prayer helps. When combined, most of mothers in this study said they got benefits from their spiritual life.

    Next, mothers were asked a series of questions to describe their religious practices. Over half of all mothers belonged to a faith community. Among all mothers, over three fourths (77%) attended religious services. Mothers who identified as religious or spiritual attended religious services twice as much as mothers who did not identify as such. About half of all mothers reported participating in religious activities themselves and two-thirds reported that their children participated. Religious activities included child and adult Sunday school classes, Bible study groups, or prayer groups.

    Beyond attendance and participation, mothers were asked whether or not they made financial contributions to a place of worship. Among all mothers, nearly half (47%) said they do make financial contributions though the percentage is greater among those mothers who identified as religious or spiritual. Half of the mothers who identified as religious or spiritual also said they contribute in non-financial ways. Even among those who did not identify as religious, 7% contribute in non-financial ways.

    Life Satisfaction

    To find out how satisfied these mothers are with their life, they were asked to select the best descriptor of their current level of life satisfaction as a measure of their well-being. Two-thirds of all the mothers are satisfied or very satisfied with their lives. To further understand the significance of this finding, correlations between life satisfaction and religious and spiritual identity and practices were conducted. Positive correlations emerged between:

    • Life satisfaction and frequency of religious services attendance, r = .27, p < .01.
    • Life satisfaction and frequency of participation in religious activities other than services, r = .25, p < .01.

    To further understand relationships between religious and spiritual behaviors, additional correlations were conducted. Among these mothers, there was a positive relationship between:

    • Attending religious services and getting strength and support from God, r = .34, p < .01.
    • Attending religious services and receiving help from prayer, r = .31, p < .01.
    • Participation in religious activities beyond religious services and receiving help from prayer, r = .28, p < .01.
    • Attending religious services and the importance of seeking God's guidance when making important life decisions, r = .29, p < .01.
    • Participating in religious activities other than religious services and the importance of seeking God's guidance when making important life decisions, r = .26, p < .01.
    • Attendance at religious services and children's participation in church or other religious activities was positive, r = .67, p < .01.
    • Attendance in religious activities other than religious services and children's participation in church or other religious activities, r = .61, p < .01.

    Finally, to understand the relationships among spiritual behaviors, two more correlations were conducted.

    • Getting strength and support from God was positively associated with receiving help from prayer and the importance of seeing God's guidance when making important life decisions, r = .78, p < .01.
    • Receiving help from prayer was highly associated with the importance of seeing God's guidance when making important life decisions, r = .79, p < .01.

    Importance of Faith as a Resiliency Factor

    Most of these rural mothers both identified and engaged in religious and spiritual practices. As expected, those who self-identified as religious or spiritual evidenced more religious practices. In answer to the question, "Do these mothers identify as religious or spiritual beings?" Clearly, most of these mothers did. This finding reinforces the inclusion of a faith or spiritual dimension in the multi-state study as called for in the human ecological theory (Bubolz & Sontag, 1993) that serves as an organizing framework for the study. Although family sciences resiliency researchers agree that family stress and coping theory is fundamental to understanding resiliency (McCubbin & McCubbin, 1988, Figley, 1989, McCubbin et al., 1997, Patterson, 2002), few have explored faith as a resiliency factor in addressing adversity. Boss (2002) acknowledged that spirituality is a new area in family stress management and needs additional investigation. This study makes a contribution to the field by documenting the self-identified religious or spiritual nature of these mothers.

    Some psychologists, focusing on the intra-personal level, acknowledge that spiritual faith can play a support role in people's lives. This faith, as a belief in a power that transcends humans, contains a higher being that can serve as a dependable loving adult who cares (Wilder, 2002). They acknowledge that an intrinsic emotional attachment or personal devotion to the higher being or God expressed through prayer can assist in dealing with stressors (Hackney and Sanders, 2003, Wilder, 2002). The answer to the question, "Do these mothers receive benefits from their spiritual practices?" is yes. Most did find prayer and God's guidance to he a source of strength and support. The numbers reporting engagement in spiritual practices is consistent with the concept that rural women identify with a spiritual belief system in a supernatural power or God (Chandler & Campbell, 2002).

    Sociologists, focusing on the interpersonal level, acknowledge that extrinsic religious activities such as attendance at services, with a focus on the social and behavioral aspects of religion, can also assist in dealing with stressors (Hackney & Sanders, 2003; Wilder, 2002). The question of "Are these mothers engaging in religious practices?" produced an affirmative answer. Most attend services, participate in religious activities and have their children participating. Even with limited resources, many contribute both financial and non-financially to places of worship. These contributions are an indication that the families are willing to use scarce finances in exchange for support through their places of religious activities and services. The total numbers of mothers reporting to be engaged in religious practices supports the concept that organized religion is central to the heart of rural life (Chandler & Campbell, 2002).

    Given that the majority of these mothers live below, at, or just above the poverty level, it was important to determine their level of satisfaction with life. The majority said they were satisfied or very satisfied. Life satisfaction scores increased as participation rates increased, and correlated with the importance of seeing God's guidance when making important life decisions. These findings support research indicating that life satisfaction and spirituality and religiosity are correlated; thereby one might conclude that ascribing to a religious belief system has a strong effect on perceived well-being" (Chandler & Campbell, 2002, p 10).

    Among these mothers, life satisfaction and support from God increases as participation rates in religious practice increases. Also, there is a positive relationship between religious practices and spiritual practices. When the mothers participate in religious activities, help from the spiritual practice of prayer increases. As attendance at religious services increases, the importance of seeing God's guidance increases.

    As religious activity increases, the mothers access more strength and support from God, help from prayer, and guidance from God. While spiritual practices did not directly show a statistically positive relationship to life satisfaction, the mothers who participated in multiple religious and spiritual practices reported greater levels of life satisfaction.


    Families face trials, tribulations, transitions, and tragedies over time. Some are better able to get through these challenges than others. Some even thrive after facing difficulties. Understanding why and how is central to scientific inquiry and to professional practice that makes a difference in the lives of families. Practitioners may want to consider the religious and spiritual orientation and practices of the families they serve for whom faith, as a resiliency factor, may be a source of support in dealing with the constant stressor of poverty and a means of improving their sense of family well-being or quality of life.

    Practitioners may also want to explore the role of mothers in the religious education of their children given the relationship between these mothers' involvement in religious services and activities and the involvement of their children. Researchers may want to incorporate religious and spiritual orientation and practices in their investigations of family stress and resiliency to better understand family systems and sources of support for overcoming adversity. Inclusion of the spiritual dimension of families will contribute to a more holistic, and perhaps to a more effective, professional practice.

    While additional research will be needed to better understand the role of spirituality and religiosity in relation to coping with stressors of life among rural, low-income families, this study establishes that among these rural, low-income mothers, their faith, expressed through their religious and spiritual practices, was a source of support; this support was evidenced in the resiliency and life satisfaction findings of the research. Further research on this path of inquiry will contribute to the body of knowledge in family stress management and resiliency.


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      1. For more information about the study, go to the website: http://www.ruralfamilies.umn.edu/return to text