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It Takes a Village to Save a Child

Having a strong community can protect adolescents -- even those who grow up in poor families -- from risky health behaviors.

Previous studies have found that children who grow up in poverty have health problems as adults. However, new research shows that poor adolescents who live in communities with more social cohesiveness and control are less likely to smoke and become obese as adolescents.

The study, published in Psychological Science, is part of a long-term examination of children growing up poor in rural upstate New York. The study was designed to determine why poverty leads to negative outcomes, according to lead author Gary W. Evans, PhD, of Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

Participants in the study included children ages eight to 10 years old; half grew up poor and half were from middle-income families. Evans and colleagues checked in on the subjects periodically to measure their health and exposure to risk factors.

At age 17, the subjects in the study and their mothers filled out surveys about social capital, a measure of how connected a community is and how much social control there is. For example, the mothers decided how much they agreed that “One of my neighbors would do something if they saw someone trying to sell drugs to a child or youth in plain sight,” and the adolescents indicated whether they had adults from whom they could ask for advice. The adolescents also completed surveys on behaviors such as smoking, and had their height and weight measured.

As expected, adolescents from impoverished families were more likely to smoke and to have a higher body mass index (BMI) than adolescents from middle-income families. However, poor adolescents who had more social capital were somewhat protected; they were less likely to smoke and tended to have lower BMIs than poor adolescents who didn’t have abundant social capital. “You may be able to loosen those connections between early childhood poverty and negative health outcomes if you live in a community with good social resources,” Evans said in press release.

It was concluded that adolescents in communities with more social capital may have better role models or mentors. Or perhaps, in a more empowered community, where people feel comfortable stopping someone else’s bad behavior, adolescents might feel less helpless as individuals and believe that they have some control of what is going to happen to them, Evans noted.

It’s an easy conclusion that increasing social capital might improve the lives of children in poverty. But Evans emphasized that this won’t solve the health problems associated with impoverished living in childhood. Poor adolescents who live in communities with more social capital may be better off than other poor kids, but they still tend to be less healthy than their middle-income peers. “It’s not correct to conclude that, if you just improve social capital, then it would be okay to be poor,” Evans said. “Poverty is important.”