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Researchers find a strong community protects adolescents from risky health behavior

Growing up poor increases a person's likelihood of health problems as an adult, but a new study led by a Cornell University environmental psychologist shows that being raised in a tight-knit community can help offset this disadvantage of poverty.

The study, "Loosening the Link Between Childhood Poverty and Adolescent Smoking and Obesity : The Protective Effects of Social Capital" published in the January 2011 edition of the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Science, found that poor adolescents who live in communities with more social cohesiveness are less likely to smoke and be obese.

Gary W. Evans, a professor in Cornell's College of Human Ecology, began recruiting participants in rural upstate New York in the late 1990s, when they were 8 to 10 years old. About half of the participants grew up poor and the rest were from middle-income families. As part of a long-term examination of children growing up poor in rural upstate New York, Evans and Rachel Kutcher, a Human Ecology honors undergraduate, checked in on the participants periodically to measure their health and exposure to various risk factors.

For this analysis, when people in the study were about 17 years old, the subjects and their mothers were asked to fill out surveys about "social capital," a measure of how connected a community is and how much social control there is. For example, mothers were asked to say 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 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 resided in communities with high social capital, the effects of early childhood poverty on adolescent smoking were minimal."

Evans found similar results when measuring body-mass index, a standard measure of obesity, for those in the group.

"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.

Evans and Kutcher believe 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, 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 OK to be poor," Evans said.

The work was funded by the W.T. Grant Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Network on Socioeconomics Status and Health.

John Carberry | EurekAlert!
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