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Sheila Mammen

Sheila Mammen, Professor Resource Economics

Rural Low-Income Families: Studies on Their Health and Well-Being

Sheila Mammen, professor of resource economics at UMass Amherst, is passionate about understanding the complex economic realities faced by rural low-income families. Talk with her for just a moment and her eagerness to convey information about how these families are impacted by health care choices, employment opportunities and food security is evident.

Asked why she became interested in studying poverty she replied, “Because, as a family economist, I am moved by the human capital that is lost or unrealized in people (especially children) due to poverty and its attendant lack of opportunities.  I also happen to like people’s stories – I like hearing about their lives…their past, their present, their hopes and dreams. This is why I am excited by the type of research that I do. I interview families who are economically- marginalized and try to determine ways to improve their economic well-being.” Dr. Mammen grew up in Singapore and lived there until I went she attended undergraduate college in India.

For 17 years, she has played a key role as Massachusetts state principal investigator for multi-state, multi-disciplinary studies on rural poverty. By working with 21 states (including Massachusetts, where she has worked in rural Franklin County), and with many colleagues throughout the country, as well as undergraduate and graduate students, she has compiled an impressive array of data to identify intertwined life issues that affect the well-being and functioning of families.

Poverty is disproportionately higher and more persistent in rural areas than in urban areas and problems of unemployment, underemployment, and lower wages make it more difficult for the rural poor to escape poverty. Her research focus from 1998-2008, Rural Families Speak,  looked at five topics involving low-income rural mothers: their labor supply decisions, their use of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), their coping ability in light of persistent food insecurity, their satisfaction with life, and their poverty dynamics.

Following that study, from 2008-2014, she was Massachusetts state principal investigator for a project: Rural Families Speak about Health.  The objective of this study (related to the first one) was to determine the interactions of individual, family, community and policy contexts on physical and mental health in diverse rural low-income families. 

Separate from these two major studies, two grants were awarded to Dr. Mammen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to study the best methods for communicating core health messages.  The goal of this effort was to determine ideal interactions to assist families related to issues of physical and mental health. Through forums, extension education and interviews, a series of helpful responses were gleaned about how to disseminate information. The second was specifically to identify factors which either help or hinder their adoption by rural low-income mothers and the professionals who serve them.

Dr. Mammen also teaches six courses focused on consumer and family economics (the study of the economic behavior and circumstances of families and households).  Among other professional activities, she was part of a six-year project, funded by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, in which she worked with homeless mothers and children in Springfield, Mass.

Dr. Mammen’s individual professional web page

Department website

Research projects funded by Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment’s Massachusetts Agricultural Experiment Station: “Rural low-income families: monitoring their well-being and functioning in the context of welfare reform”