The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently awarded two Ball State University professors a grant to study the effects of economic and social stress on those living in rural communities. 

Dr. Emily Wornell, a research assistant professor in Ball State’s Indiana Communities Institute (ICI), and Dr. Ellen Whitehead, assistant professor of Sociology, received a $650,000 competitive grant through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) for their five-year research project, “Rural Informal Work in Economically, Socially, Culturally, and Technologically Changing Contexts.” 

The Indiana Communities Institute brings together many of Ball State’s top research and outreach activities to assist Indiana communities as they strive to improve life experiences for residents, businesses, and visitors. 

“We are grateful to the United States Department of Agriculture for funding this important research endeavor,” Dr. Wornell said. “We feel this project is aligned with the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s goals of promoting economically and socially sustainable, resilient rural communities. We believe our research will produce a unique and nuanced set of findings that may guide policy discussion regarding the local and state response to informal work.” 

Employing a mixed-methods approach, Drs. Wornell and Whitehead’s overarching goal for the study is to enhance the prosperity and well-being of rural communities by identifying the role that informal economic activity plays in the livelihoods, social structure, and resilience of rural people and communities, particularly in times of economic and social stress. The study has the following objectives: 

• Describe the ways in which rural people and households participate in and employ informal work, and how this varies by social group membership (including, but not limited to, differences in race, ethnicity, citizenship, social class, and region of the country).

• Examine if and how participation in, and the role of, informal work shifts in response to changes in social, technological, and economic contexts.

• Assess the impact of, and responsiveness to, COVID-19 in terms of informal economic participation and the role of informal work in community resilience.

• Assess the role of technological change (including, but not limited to, social media, electronic funds transfers, and access to broadband or cell phone service) in either facilitating or inhibiting informal economic activity.

• Explore the networks individuals utilize to engage in informal work and whether/how these local networks increase rural livability through strengthening attachment to place, quality of life, and/or economic opportunity.

• Examine how, if at all, these networks and their potential impacts on rural livability vary by geographic location and community characteristics (including, but not limited to, proximity to urban centers and international borders, region of the country, socioeconomic and ethnic/racial diversity of the population, presence of university or college).

• Draw important lessons and considerations for state- and local-level decision makers regarding the challenges and benefits of informal economic activity in community resilience, social connection, and livelihood strategies. 

The Indiana Communities Institute harnesses Ball State talent and resources to help Indiana towns, cities, and counties address 21st Century economic development challenges. These partnerships lead to informed, effective projects, strategies, and training programs that bring development efforts into the 21st century. 

For more information on the Indiana Communities Institute, visit the ICI website, call 765-285-4912, or email