Children without community suffer the worst effects of poverty

It’s been well established that poverty hurts the well being of children.  Bad health, obesity, mental illness – these are associated with childhood poverty and everybody knows it.  What we’re discovering now is that a lack of community engagement and connections caused by poverty might be a cause. 

A new study published in Psychological Science, looked at the long term outcomes for children who were living in poverty in rural upstate New York. Over ten years ago a research team lead by Gary Evans of Cornell University were looking for an answer to the question “What is it about poverty that leads to these negative outcomes?” Their research study shows that the lack of financial capital isn’t the only factor.

In the 1990’s Evans et. al recruited participants ages 8 to 10 years old, about half of whom grew up in “poor” homes and were from middle-income families. The research team would check in on them periodically to monitor their health and get reports on their exposure to certain risks factors.

When the youth were 17 years old they, along with their mothers, completed surveys about social capital. In this case social capital is the connection that community members have with each other and how that connection influences behavior. One mother talked about seeing someone trying to sell drugs to one of the children in plain sight;  A parent watching over neighborhood children is example of how a connection between families can influence the choice of the child to buy drugs or not.

In order to test if this form of social capital helped build trusting relationships between the youth and the adults in the community, the researches asked the youth in the study whether or not they could ask any of those adult for advice.

To gather the final bits of data on the impact of social capital on their overall health, the kids filled out surveys about behavior and had other their height and weight taken.

The initial results showed that the youth who grew up in poor families were more likely to be overweight and to smoke, unlike their middle class counterparts. The good news is that the youth in the poor neighborhoods who had more social capital, or a stronger community supporting them were less likely to smoke or be heading down the road towards obesity than the poor youth who did not have strong community support.

Evans hesitated to conclude that a strong community can overcome poverty. But he’s optimistic about the results. “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 says.

It’s proof positive that even in the poorest communities mentors and engaged parents can make a difference by establishing meaningful connections with children.  Children feel safer and less helpless when they know that there are people out there who support them in their positive decisions.

It’s still not okay to let a child suffer the effects of poverty, but a strong community can ease the stress and strain and help protect every community’s greatest gift to the future, its children.

— Makenna Berry

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