The Power of Community

(Originally published April 2012)

One of the most fascinating bodies of research in the social sciences concerns the effects of social capital on child and family well-being. Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone (2000), defines social capital as the extent to which “residents (of states and communities) trust other people, join organizations, volunteer, vote and socialize with friends.” According to Putnam, “the correlation between high social capital and positive child development is as close to perfect as social scientists ever find in data analyses …” States with high social capital also have the best rankings on Anna E. Casey’s Kids Count indicators: annual surveys of infant mortality, low birth weight babies, child deaths, ages 1-14, teen deaths, ages 15-19, percentage of teens neither employed or attending school, high school dropouts, child poverty, percentage of children living in single parent families, percentage of children in families in which no parent has full time year round employment. In most years, states in the upper Midwest and New England – and Utah – have the best rankings on Kids Count indicators while states in the south and a few other states such as New Mexico and West Virginia, i.e. states with high poverty rates, have the lowest rankings.

Washington State is usually in the second tier of states on Putnam’s measures of social capital with composite scores in the top fifth to fourth of states’ Kids Count rankings. Wisconsin is similar to Washington State in Kids Count rankings, not in the top tier of states, but well above most other states in the country. Furthermore, Kids Count composite rankings of states are remarkably stable from year to year.

Putnam asserts that “across the various Kids Count indicators, social capital is second only to poverty in the breadth and depth of its effects on children’s lives.” States with higher social capital scores have better educational outcomes, lower rates of teen pregnancy, lower murder rates, lower mortality rates and better public health, according to Putnam. Educated Americans tend to be unaware, or skeptical, of effects of social connections on health and emotional well-being. However, according to Putnam, “if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying the next year by half. If you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a toss- up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining.” As social participation declines, so generally does adults’ health, Putnam claims.

Arguably, one reason why social capital has such a powerful effect on child and family well-being is that the extent of social connections influences the health and emotional well–being of parents which, in turn, affects the quality of parenting. According to this perspective, social isolation and social exclusion from community institutions undermines parenting. Impoverished parents often lack the familial and community support that sustains struggling with difficult conditions. In addition, increased social interactions appear to lead to an increase in sense of responsibility for community well-being and, therefore, for the welfare of children. There is also a distinct possibility that a higher level of concern for the neighborhood or community in which one lives leads to higher rates of membership in community organizations.

Where might a sense of responsibility for the community originate? States with the highest social capital rankings – and the best Kids Count indicators – are typically states with large populations of citizens with a Scandinavian heritage or states settled long ago by religious communities with strong communal traditions. The historical experience of a community (or society) pulling together to survive apparently has long term benefits. In the absence of such experience, or in the face of experiences in which large numbers of individuals have had to leave communities to survive or gain social acceptance, it is difficult to believe that participation in a bowling league would contribute to personal and social health.

Putnam discusses at length generational differences in rates of civic engagement and social involvement. The generation which grew up prior to World War II has a much higher rate of civic engagement and social connections than the generations which came after them. Putnam writes that “It is as though post-war generations were exposed to some anti–civic x-ray that permanently and increasingly rendered them less likely to connect with the community.” The generation which came of age in World War II lived through a war which threatened the nation’s existence and which required an enhanced sense of social cohesion. Subsequent wars have divided the country rather than bringing it together. Putnam acknowledges that to appeal to generational change as an explanation for declining social capital is merely to reformulate the puzzle. Why has generational change occurred?

It is possible that the individualistic strains of American culture lead to perceptions of persons outside the family as competitors, obstacles, or worse: threats. To put it mildly, these views and perceptions do not build community spirit. Some scholars (see The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett) believe that increased levels of income inequality, not poverty per se, account for the reduction in social capital.  In a recently published book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2000 , the libertarian scholar Charles Murray describes the cultural fracturing of an affluent highly educated elite from an underemployed lower middle class among White Americans. A sense of community that transcends these class differences is difficult to achieve given the extent to which families in these two groups live in different neighborhoods and distinct cultural enclaves that reduce social interactions among group members and lead to disdain or antipathy when social interactions occur.

Arguably, a sense of responsibility for community depends on the perception of community membership. In the 1990s, I co-authored a study (with Gary Deccio and William Horner) that found much lower rates of child maltreatment in neighborhoods with lower residential mobility and rates of housing vacancies and lower unemployment rates than in other low income neighborhoods in Spokane, Washington.

Our interpretation of these findings was that higher levels of social integration, i.e., the experience of community membership, led to lower rates of child abuse and neglect in neighborhoods facing similar economic challenges.  More recently, Yonas, et al (2009), found in a LONGSCAN study that collective efficacy, “defined as shared trust and willingness of neighborhood residents to engage in social control,” was associated with fewer externalizing behaviors, including delinquency, in young adolescents with histories of neglect, but (curiously) not abuse. In the Yonas, et al, study, collective efficacy was measured by a 45 item questionnaire that included such items as “My neighbors could be counted on to intervene in various ways if children were skipping school.”  The authors comment that a dozen questions were used to identify “… active participation by neighbors to provide a close, responsible and accountable neighborhood.”

Collective efficacy depends on hope and leads to the belief that through joint action communities can shape the social environment. During recent years, there have been some notable efforts to utilize community action principles in “creating environments that facilitate a parent’s ability to do the right thing (Daro and Dodge, 2009) rather than seeking to directly improve the parenting skills of high risk parents. Some of these initiatives have given community residents a voice in selecting or streamlining services and in fostering collaborations among service providers. “Other strategies, according to Daro and Duke, “focus on altering the social norms that govern personal interactions among neighbors, parent-child relationships, and personal and collective responsibility for child protection.” Community norms reflect widely shared beliefs about how children should be cared for, disciplined and educated; and it is the erosion or collapse of these norms that characterizes chronic neglect and chronic maltreatment.

One way community norms can influence parenting behavior of whole populations is by endorsing collective action to accomplish a common goal, for example reduction of youth violence, and by reflecting zero tolerance for some forms of child maltreatment, e.g. sexual abuse, regardless of the status or social class of perpetrators. In my view, the large reduction in rates of sexual abuse and serious physical abuse since the mid- 1990s has largely been the result of community intolerance for these forms of abuse as expressed by use of criminal sanctions and large tort settlements entered into with victims of sexual abuse by numerous Catholic dioceses. On the other hand, child welfare agencies tolerate neglect even in its extreme forms because of neglect’s enmeshment with poverty, because they misunderstand child safety issues resulting from chronic neglect, and /or because of the lack of a satisfactory answer to the question, “What would it mean if we were less tolerant?”

Daro and Dodge assert that “Addressing social dilemmas through a combination of grassroots community action and coordinated professional individualized services is a long- standing practice in both social work and public health.” They describe community change efforts in which local residents and stakeholders “participate in a community planning initiative that asks them to identify core concerns and to make a plan for resolving key issues.” They advocate for a balance between community capacity building and normative change and an emphasis on formal services delivered by professionals and agencies.

Daro and Duke discuss five community initiatives: Triple P Positive Parenting Program, Strengthening Families, the Durham Family Initiative, Strong Communities and the Community Partnership for Protecting Children (CPCC). They comment that all of these initiatives seek to increase access to and availability of services; and  “three of the five initiatives use specific strategies to alter the way in which local residents view the notion of seeking help from others to resolve personal and parenting issues.” They add, “These initiatives seek to change a range of behaviors and attitudes such as mutual reciprocity among neighbors, parent – child interactions, and collective responsibility among residents for child protection and safety.”

It has become apparent to many researchers and advocates that providing expensive services or programs to a small number of at-risk families is unlikely to ever have population effects on child maltreatment rates. Achieving population effects requires changes in social attitudes around parenting, changes facilitated by simple messages (based whenever possible on strong science) and delivered in a variety of ways. Domestic violence advocates and researchers have done a good job of communicating the message that ‘witnessing violence is bad for children’. Early childhood development researchers and advocates have made a great start in delivering the message that ‘traumatic stress is bad for babies’ brains,’ and that emotionally responsive parenting is required for young children to regulate their physiological processes  and emotions.

CPS programs, juvenile courts, CASAs, attorneys and other service providers shape social norms around parenting in ways they barely fathom through day in day out decision making in screening and investigating CPS reports, and in the understandings of child maltreatment that develop among major actors in juvenile court settings. Legal statutes do not usually operationalize definitions of child abuse and neglect; rather, child welfare agencies and courts give legal statutes concrete meaning.  Beliefs that reflect widespread community attitudes about acceptable and unacceptable parenting have a powerful effect on parenting behavior when viewed over decades. For this reason, child welfare managers who insist that child welfare agencies have no role in prevention because agencies lack resources or a legal mandate to fund services prior to a CPS report do not understand their influence in shaping social attitudes and beliefs. Everything public child welfare agencies do in screening, investigation and service provision  affects prevention of child maltreatment, though not in direct easily understood ways.

Prevention advocates and foundations should consider the following actions:

  • Developing and delivering in multiple formats simple messages around desirable vs. unacceptable parenting based (whenever possible) on strong science.

  • Blanketing communities with information about the negative effects of depression on parenting and how to access evidenced based treatments for depression.

  • Mobilizing and empowering low income neighborhoods and communities to take action to reduce child abuse and neglect and youth violence; advocates should insist that public child welfare agencies support these initiatives.

  • Adopting the policy goal of eliminating long term severe poverty, i.e., families with annual incomes of less than $10,000 per year for at least 5 consecutive years.

  • Investing in studies of community cohesion and social capital to understand better how the various dimensions of social connectedness improve child and family well-being.

  • Targeting high risk families as identified by information available in birth records and by participation in publicly funded substance abuse and mental health services for offers of voluntary services prior to a CPS report.

  • Providing voluntary therapeutic child care services for at–risk babies and toddlers at the earliest possible moment.



Daro, Deborah, Dodge, Kenneth A., “Creating Community Responsibility for Child Protection: Possibilities and Challenges,” The Future of Children, Vol. 19, No. 2, Fall, 2009.

Deccio, Gary, Horner, William, Wilson, Dee, “High –risk neighborhoods and high- risk families: Replication research related to the human ecology of child maltreatment,” Journal of Social Service Research, 18(3-4), 1994.

Kids Count 2011, Anna E. Casey Foundation

Murray, Charles, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960- 2000, 2012.

Putnam, Robert, Bowling Alone, 2000.

Wilkinson, Richard, Pickett, Kate, The Spirit Level, 2009.

Yonas, Michael A., Lewis, Terri, Hussy, Jon M., Thompson, Richard, Newton, Rae, English, Diana, Dubowicz, Howard, “Perceptions of Neighborhood Collective Efficacy Moderate the Impact of Maltreatment on Aggression,” Child Maltreatment, Vol. 15, No. 1, February 2010.


© 2020 by Dee Wilson Consulting. Proudly created with