The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
December 6, 2016

The ties that stabilize: How social networks and communities affect children

December 7, 2016

Over the next two weeks, Urban scholars are reflecting on how different aspects of children’s lives affect family instability and their healthy development. This team of scholars recently released a report laying out insights from an exploration of what research is needed to stabilize the lives of children and families. This work is part of Urban’s Kids in Context Initiative.

The phrase safety net is often used to describe the public benefits—like food stamps, housing subsidies, and temporary cash transfers—some families receive in times of financial crisis. But there’s another safety net for families much closer to home: social networks and local communities.

The first safety net arises from our social contract with one another as citizens of the United States; the second is formed by our bonds as members of families and communities. Though each net operates on a different level, both perform the same function, offering a buffer against life’s inevitable vicissitudes.

In our brief “Stabilizing Children’s Lives: Insights for Research and Action,” we explore how social networks and communities contribute to what children need for healthy development, such as a sense of security, strong relationships with loving adults, a stable and safe environment, and consistent access to food, housing, education, and health care. Our research has only just begun, but this initial scan makes clear that stability is deeply intertwined with the experience of family, neighbors, and place. For the most vulnerable families, however, that experience can cut in two different directions.

Across all income strata, most Americans point to family and friends as their most expected source of support in hard times, and low-income families are less likely to enter into hardship if they have strong social networks. But low-income families may be more vulnerable to “draining” social ties, giving more than they can spare to families, friends, and neighbors who have equal or greater needs.

Similarly, the neighborhoods we live in can also confer important advantages for children, especially in education. But for families who live in chronically disadvantaged neighborhoods, place is often detrimental to child well-being and education and to adult personal and economic stability because of a lack of quality resources, like grocery stores, jobs, and quality education. A real or perceived lack of safety in one’s neighborhood is especially harmful to children. Proximity to a neighborhood homicide, even if not witnessed, can significantly lower a child’s score on academic achievement tests.

The relationship between place and the quality of low-income people’s social ties is mixed. Some evidence suggests that low-income neighbors will often form small networks that are primary sources of emotional and tangible support, but social isolation and draining ties are also prevalent in the most deeply distressed neighborhoods with poverty rates over 30 percent.

Communities can be a source of stability, or they can create the instability that negatively affects child development. To fully understand instability, we must look well beyond traditional social services to explore how entire communities—families, friends, neighbors, voluntary clubs, congregations, schools, workplaces, and helping agencies—can give children the stability they need and deserve to grow into happy, healthy, and prosperous adults. 

Photo by Granger Wootz/Getty Images

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