February 7, 2011 - Growing up poor increases a person's chances of health problems as an adult, but a new Cornell study shows that being raised in a tight-knit community can help offset this disadvantage of poverty. Poor adolescents who live in communities with more social cohesiveness are less likely to smoke and be obese, reports the study, published in January's Psychological Science journal.
PAPER: Loosening the Link Between Childhood Poverty and Adolescent Smoking and Obesity: The Protective Effects of Social Capital, Gary W. Evans and Rachel Kutcher, Psychological Science, January 2011; vol. 22, 1: pp. 3-7., first published on November 24, 2010, ABSTRACT..
Environmental psychologist Gary W. Evans, recruited 326 rural upstate New York children when they were about 9 years old and their mothers. About half of the children lived in or near poverty; the rest were from middle-income families. Periodically, Evans and co-author Rachel Kutcher visited the participants to measure their health and exposure to various risk factors.
When the participants were about 17 years old, they and their mothers filled out surveys that assessed how connected their communities were and how much social control they felt they had. For example, mothers were asked to say 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"; the teenagers were asked whether they had adults whom they could ask for advice. The teens also completed surveys on behavior, including smoking, and had their height and weight measured.
"Youth from low-income backgrounds smoked more than those who grew up in more affluent homes," the study concludes. However, if they lived in connected communities, "the effects of early childhood poverty on adolescent smoking were minimal." Evans found similar results when assessing the teens' body-mass index, a standard measure of obesity.
Evans and Kutcher believe adolescents in communities with more so-called social capital (a measure of how connected a community is and how much social control there is) may have better role models or mentors; or perhaps in a more empowered community, where people feel comfortable stopping someone else's bad behavior, the young people feel less helpless as individuals. They might believe that "you have some control over what's going to happen to you," they suggested.
Still, the authors warned, social capital can help poor youths, but it is not a remedy for the health problems associated with impoverished living in childhood. Poor adolescents, even those in communities with more social capital, are still 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 says.
Reference: Having a Strong Community Protects Adolescents From Risky Health Behaviors, psychologicalscience.org, 2/2/2011.