"Unfortunately, children living in trailer parks have a hard time reaping the benefits of small-town living unless they work exceptionally hard to build bridges to the nearby community," said Katherine MacTavish, now of Oregon State University, and her mentor, U of I professor of community studies Sonya Salamon.
To benefit from supportive small-town resources, a family must be integrated into the town's social networks, they said. "But townspeople tend to look down on the trailer court kids, calling them 'trailer trash.' They stigmatize park residents by saying, 'If something is missing, just go look in the trailer park.'"
As part of a larger study, MacTavish studied ten adolescents in an all-white, Midwestern trailer court near an upscale small town. Full-time employment for all adults in these families was the norm, but the jobs offered low wages, few or no benefits, and little job stability or financial security.
In over half the households, at least one parent lacked a high-school education. Half the mothers experienced the birth of a first child before finishing high school. Divorce (in six of ten families) and single parenthood (four of ten families) were common as well.
Of the 10 teens in the study, two flourished while growing up in the trailer park, following a path that MacTavish and Salamon believed would lead to a better life. Both eventually attended the University of Illinois. Four teens were identified as static, likely to attain the economic status of their parents. And four were floundering, heading toward narrowed life chances, the researchers said. What did it take for the flourishing teenage girls to become upwardly mobile?
To flourish, youth had to become a member of the community outside the trailer park, and both girls developed intense relationships with nearby town friends and mentors.
For Trinity, a straight A student, cheerleader and dance-team member, the shift toward town-centered social ties came in seventh grade. At school, she became friends with a town girl, who invited her to church. Trinity too became active in the church and spent a great deal of time with the friend's family, vacationing with them and working summers in the family business.
Melanie also became very involved in a local church and credited several adults there with having a great influence on her. They gave her clothes, spent time with her, and encouraged her. In eleventh grade, she began to attend a small, private high school run by the church and, during spring break, she visited the family of a former minister.
Although some youth in the study had town friends while retaining ties to trailer-park friends, Melanie and Trinity chose not to interact socially with their trailer-park peers. Both girls chose not to ride the bus to school and never hung out on the park streets.
"Trinity hated riding the school bus," said her mother. "You could see it; she would stand off away from the other kids. Here's Trinity and here's all the other kids fighting and cussing. She told me, 'Mom, I'm not like those other kids.' After that, I never put her on the bus again."
Both girls' parents supported their daughters' social withdrawal from the park, making sacrifices so their daughters would fit in with the town's middle-class teens. They invested time, energy and money in their daughters' social mobility.
Although the furniture was quite modest in the older singlewide unit where Trinity lived with her mother and new stepfather, Trinity always dressed in the latest fashion, wearing only "new-looking, name-brand clothing."
"Trinity's mother knew what it took to get ahead. And Trinity had an older brother in college, so it took everything the mother had to support this young woman. It was a very humble home, but Trinity had the right clothes to fit in as a teen in this upscale community," said Salamon.
Melanie's mother (actually her biological grandmother) also invested in Melanie's successful development. During an interview with the researcher, her mother said, "I hope you don't mind if I fold these newspapers while we talk. Melanie has a paper route, and I like to have the papers ready when she gets home."
In both cases, the availability of family time was key to parents' investment in the girls. Trinity's mother had a job that allowed her to dictate her work schedule. Melanie's mother had a disability that kept her home full-time, and her father (biological grandfather) was retired.
"Even if there wasn't a lot of money, these two girls experienced a sense of security in their families. There was some solidity there, some backing," Salamon and MacTavish said.
Having kin nearby -- in Melanie's case, having grandparents actually assume a parental role -- was an important safety net for these families, said the researchers.
"And we don't want to discount the importance of the church in providing middle-class role models for youth," said Salamon. "Involvement in church activities was a ladder up and out of the trailer park; it played an important role in the story of both these teens."
The study was funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Research Initiative grant and a National Institutes of Health -- National Institutes of Child Health and Development grant.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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