Rural location with trailers and railroad tracks.
Published on: Nov 2, 2020

Faculty in SSRI are part of a multidisciplinary, multi-institution research team that was recently awarded the National Excellence in Multistate Research Award from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and the United States Department of Agriculture.

This prestigious and highly competitive award recognizes scientists who conduct exemplary research and outreach efforts across multiple states and enhance USDA multistate programs' visibility. The team, which also recently won the Western Region Excellence in Research Award, was recognized at the association’s national award ceremony, which took place virtually Oct. 28.

The project, known as “W4001: Social, Economic and Environmental Causes and Consequences of Demographic Change in Rural America,” conducts research on the most pressing demographic, economic, social and environmental challenges faced by rural communities in the United States. Rural areas make up 72% of the nation’s land area, are home to 46 million people and are essential to agriculture, natural resources, recreation and environmental sustainability.

The team includes 39 investigators across 28 colleges and universities spanning all regions of the U.S. In just the last three years, the group has produced hundreds of peer-reviewed publications, developed numerous public briefs, secured more than $13 million in research funding, led workshops for community organizations, delivered more than 200 presentations to stakeholders, including the U.S. Congress and the National Institutes of Health, and consulted for experts in multiple state and federal agencies.

Penn State faculty who contributed to the project are SSRI Associate Director Leif Jensen, distinguished professor of rural sociology and demography and the Penn State lead; Paige Castellanos, assistant research professor in the Office of International Programs; SSRI cofund Guangqing Chi, professor of rural sociology, demography, and public health sciences; Laszlo Kulcsar, head of the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education; SSRI cofund Heather Randell, assistant professor of rural sociology and demography; Kathleen Sexsmith, assistant professor of rural sociology and women's, gender and sexuality studies; Brian Thiede, assistant professor of rural sociology, sociology, and demography; and Ann Tickamyer, professor emerita of rural sociology and demography.

Jensen explained that many rural areas face challenges such as limited access to healthcare, education, broadband internet and employment opportunities. Events such as the 2008 recession, the opioid epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted how such challenges can lead to significant disruptions to the environmental, economic, social and physical well-being of rural communities. The team’s findings have contributed to numerous local, state and national policies that support rural sustainability and well-being.

In recent years, W4001’s research has helped address multiple major national health crises. For example, this project has provided essential information about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on rural communities, guiding states’ social distancing policies, resource allocation, testing and reopening strategies. Additionally, this project was the first to identify rising rural opioid overdose rates and explanations for those trends.

W4001’s research has informed anti-poverty policies, including changes in official measurements of poverty and underemployment and the distribution of safety net resources. Project members were the first to discover that rural populations are shrinking due to young adult outmigration, fewer births and increased mortality. Researchers created a database that details county-level age-specific net migration trends.

Hundreds of thousands of regional planners, insurance companies, school districts, senior housing developers, public health agencies and other stakeholders have used the database to understand rural needs and market demand and to inform infrastructure development and resource allocation. Recently, the group’s research and outreach have helped numerous state governments prepare for the 2020 Census and facilitate a complete count.

The supporting research conducted by Penn State includes multiple studies of socioeconomic inequalities in rural areas, including a 50-year profile of underemployment in rural and urban America, which raised awareness about persisting disadvantages among people of color overall and rural African Americans in particular; an in-depth study of patterns and determinants of income inequality within rural and urban counties; and an examination of the urban-rural difference in aggressive prostate cancer among black and white men.

Another Penn State-led project funded by the National Institute on Aging is supporting research on the implications of rural residence for population health including cognitive functioning and opioid use disorder. Additionally, the Penn State team has focused on occupational safety and health conditions facing immigrant workers in livestock industries in the United States as well as workers in Pennsylvania’s mushroom industry.

“Our rural sociology program, supported by our affiliation with Penn State’s Population Research Institute, has a long history of contributing to the scientific understanding of rural people and places, both at home and abroad,” Jensen said. “This multistate project allows us to inform our work through collaborations and exchanges with rural social demographers nationwide. It has been a rewarding and productive collective effort, and we’re proud to be part of this award-winning project.”