- Adolescence is a developmental stage marked by crystallization in individuals’ sense of identity (Erikson, 1994; Harter, 1999). Research on positive youth development stresses the ways in which thriving trajectories during adolescence contribute to positive lifelong outcomes (Lerner & Overton, 2008; Scales, Benson, & Roehlkepartain, 2011) A symbolic interactionism perspective (Mead, 1934) describes how individuals interact with their social contexts to create meaning, which is then incorporated into their personal identities. Rural contexts can present risks and positive assets for youth during this stage. Rural areas are often marked by close-knit social networks (Elder & Conger, 2000), but can suffer from limited access to and unequal distribution of financial and social resources (Carr & Kefalas, 2009; Duncan & Coles, 1999). Poverty and income inequality in rural communities can create stigma (Goffman, 1963; Link & Phelan, 2001) which shapes how resources are distributed across social networks (Sherman, 2009). If rural, low-income youth experience marginalization and stigma due to their low-income status, these experiences may shape their identity development processes.
Adult relationships increase in number and significance during middle and late adolescence (Csikszentmihalyi & Schneider, 2001) and positive relationships with adults are a developmental asset for youth (Benson, Scales, & Syvertsen, 2011). Sustained positive relationships with important adults can produce positive outcomes for adolescents, including improved emotional, social, and cognitive skills, as well as positive behavioral outcomes (Beam, Chen, & Greenberger, 2002; DuBois, Portillo, Rhodes, Silverthorn, & Valentine, 2011; Rhodes, Spencer, Keller, Liang, & Noam, 2006). However, low-income youth, especially those in rural settings, may be more isolated from interactions with adults in communities and institutions (Carr & Kefalas, 2009; Lareau, 2003). More research is needed to understand the role that important adults play in adolescent identity development in rural contexts, including the experiences of stigma and positive youth development outcomes. This study explored the effects of stigma and important adults on identity development of low-income adolescents living in a small rural community in Oregon.
Data were collected in the rural community of Mountainside, Oregon. The sample includes semi-structured interviews with 16 low-income youth aged 16-18, eight mentors and important non-familial adults identified by youth, and 14 key informants who work in community-oriented professions. Two qualitative interviews were conducted with youth participants, and one interview was conducted with each mentor and key informant. Interviews were analyzed using open and focused coding, in order to address the research questions as well as explore emergent themes (Corbin & Strauss, 2008).
Results focused on the construction of meaning around “low-income youth”, and subsequent influences on youth identity development and behaviors. Low-income youth respondents reported many positive strengths and capacities in their own lives, and seemed to hold largely positive self-concepts. Positive identities were supported by relationships with important adults within and outside of youths’ families. Adults in the sample held more pessimistic views of “low-income youth”, seeing them as a problem in the community, and describing their stigmatized status. Youth in the sample experienced constraints due to their low-income and stigmatized statuses which limited their identity development and future outlooks. The findings of this research both support and expand theoretical understandings of stigma, rurality, influences of important adults, and adolescent identity development in context. Implications for research and programming that encourage positive youth development in the contexts of education, family, and community are discussed.