Researchers will study family income and well-being of children in two states

By Vicki Fong
August 21, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- It is believed that a family’s income has a powerful effect on shaping a child’s well-being, ranging from behavior, psychological and health factors, and school success. But the impact can be difficult to measure accurately because of other influences such as parents’ values and abilities.  An interdisciplinary team of researchers has received a new foundation grant to study the well-being of children in two states: Pennsylvania that allows natural gas drilling and New York that bans such activities.  

Molly Martin, associate professor of sociology and demography at Penn State, is leading the project, supported by a $150,000 grant from The Russell Sage Foundation, a leading foundation dedicated to the improvement of social and living conditions in the U.S.  The researchers will review and analyze data from Pennsylvania and New York school districts located above the Marcellus Shale region, one of the largest natural gas reserves in the U.S.

''We all think that money matters for so many life experiences, while some believe money can solve any problem,'' Martin said. ''But is that really true? Children from wealthy families are often successful and tend to be healthier. Is it really money that fosters success and health? There may be other factors that are tightly intertwined: their parents’ good education and jobs, supportive parents and teachers, and other positive traits.''

The Marcellus Shale region stretches from southcentral New York to West Virginia and, over the past decade, has experienced an economic boom in drilling activities in certain states. Using Geographic Information Analysis (GIS), the researchers will be able to merge annual maps of Marcellus Shale wells and gas pipelines and locate them within school district boundaries. Then, the team can study annual, individual data in various categories by school district and analyze differences for children in the two states. Topics include pre- and post-pregnancy health outcomes, academic proficiency, obesity, teen pregnancy, high school graduation and juvenile delinquency in several communities.   

''This is a rare opportunity for a natural experiment. Some families will receive a significant number of royalty checks, known as ‘mailbox money,’ while others will not, largely because of two factors – one determined by a geological formation created over 300 million years ago (Marcellus Shale) and the other by government policies decided in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Albany, New York,'' Martin noted.

According to the sociologist, imagine two families living the same Pennsylvania community: the Jones and the Smiths. Their children go to the same schools, and their families attend the same church. The Jones own a lot of land and have leased many acres for natural gas drilling, receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Smiths have gained nothing from the Marcellus Shale. 

Compare this pair to two families in the state of New York. Their lives and communities appear similar to the Joneses and the Smiths, but they cannot receive any “mailbox money” due to the state ban, said Martin. The team will compare the equivalent of these four families and how they change over time using governmental data about Pennsylvania and New York school districts. The team will test whether increasing the average amount of “mailbox money” in a school district is associated with improvements in the average level of children’s health and well-being in that district, as well as how that pattern changes over time. 

The research team includes Martin; Kelly Davis, assistant research professor of human development and family studies; Diane McLaughlin, professor of rural sociology, demography, and sociology; and Wayne Osgood, professor of criminology and sociology; all from Penn State, and Elizabeth Oltmans Ananat, associate professor of public policy and economics at Duke University. 

The initial project received support from Penn State’s Population Research Institute, the Social Sciences Research Institute and the College of the Liberal Arts.




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Last Updated July 28, 2017