Objective. Social capital describes the benefits that are derived from personal social relationships (within families and communities) and social affiliations. This investigation examined the extent to which social capital is associated with positive developmental and behavioral outcomes in high-risk preschool children.
Design. A cross-sectional case-control analysis of young children “doing well” and “not doing well” at baseline in four coordinated longitudinal studies.
Participants. A total of 667 2- to 5-year-old children (mean age, 4.4 years) and their maternal caregivers who are participating in the Longitudinal Studies of Child Abuse and Neglect Consortium. At recruitment, all children were characterized by unfavorable social or economic circumstances that contributed to the identification of the children as high risk.
Measures. Social capital was defined as benefits that accrue from social relationships within communities and families. A social capital index was created by assigning one point to each of the following indicators: 1) two parents or parent-figures in the home; 2) social support of the maternal caregiver; 3) no more than two children in the family; 4) neighborhood support; and 5) regular church attendance. Outcomes were measured with the Child Behavior Checklist, a widely used measure of behavioral/emotional problems, and with the Battelle Developmental Inventory Screening Test, a standardized test that identifies developmental deficits. Children were classified as doing well if their scores on these instruments indicated neither behavioral nor developmental problems.
Results. Only 13% of the children were classified as doing well. The individual indicators that best discriminated between levels of child functioning were the most direct measures of social capital—church affiliation, perception of personal social support, and support within the neighborhood. The social capital index was strongly associated with child well-being, more so than any single indicator. The presence of any social capital indicator increased the odds of doing well by 29%; adding any two increased the odds of doing well by 66%.
Conclusions. Our findings suggest that social capital may have an impact on children's well-being as early as the preschool years. In these years it seems to be the parents' social capital that confers benefits on their offspring, just as children benefit from their parents' financial and human capital. Social capital may be most crucial for families who have fewer financial and educational resources. Our findings suggest that those interested in the healthy development of children, particularly children most at risk for poor developmental outcomes, must search for new and creative ways of supporting interpersonal relationships and strengthening the communities in which families carry out the daily activities of their lives.