The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Father Gone, Social Capital Scarce

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Though the term “social capital” originated in the late nineteenth century as a way to refer to the social assets that inhere in relationships of mutual good-will and reciprocal obligation, social scientists only began to use the term frequently in the 1990s—at a time when such relationships were clearly imperiled by the increasingly atomizing dynamics of the modern world. Now, in an international study recently completed at Johns Hopkins University, researchers establish that family disintegration depletes the social capital available to young people living in global urban centers, and that this loss of social capital compromises young people’s health.

To identify the demographic and social correlates of social capital of urban youth, the Johns Hopkins scholars examine data collected from approximately 500 15-19-year-old young men and women living in each of five urban centers: Baltimore, Delhi, Shanghai, Ibadan, and Johannesburg (2,339 total participants). By analyzing these data for four realmsfamily, school, peers, and neighborhood—the researchers identify a number of statistical predictors of low social capital, but one of those predictors will particularly catch the attention of those concerned about the decay of family life in recent decades: the researchers report that “being raised outside a two-parent family has a widespread, negative association with social capital.”

Clearly evident for females in all five locations and for males in Baltimore, Ibadan, and Johannesburg, this association between family structure and social capital was less clear cut for “young men in Delhi and Shanghai, [where] being raised in a one parent family seems to increase the levels of social capital from a caring adult female,” perhaps because of different cultural dynamics in settings where single parenting is less common than it is in the urban U.S.

The Hopkins scholars also gauge the effects of social capital on young people’s health. In weighing their data, the researchers “find support for the hypothesis that social capital is associated with good health as the majority of associations between self-reported health and the various domains of social capital are positive.” 

As they examine the data from the five different urban sites, the researchers see “in every group . . . at least one indicator of social capital that was associated with self-reported health and no negative associations.” They believe that the linkage between social capital and health “underscores the importance of social resources as a major potential determinant of health.”   

Still, the researchers recognize that “all social capital is not equal”; indeed, inequity in types of social capital accounts for the fact that “young men experience some negative associations between peer social capital and self-reported health.” Further scrutiny of the data highlights the circumstances in which young men and women are especially likely to rely on peer relationships: “It appears,” remark the researchers, “that growing up with one parent may intensify a young person’s relationships with their peers.” When young people—especially young men—enjoy none of the benefits of the social capital that develops in an intact family, they may turn to peers to find some of that capital. But who is surprised that when adolescent boys find their social capital not in an intact family but rather in an urban street gang, their health suffers?

Cognizant of how an intact parental marriage enhances health-protecting social capital, the researchers focus on family structure in commenting on why “the presence and amount of social capital is essential for the health and successful development of young people.” Family structure affects the formation of social capital, the scholars suggest, because “social capital for young people . . . [depends on] their connections through their parents to a wider social network.” The Hopkins scholars consequently attend to the views of colleagues who argue that “the rise of single-parent households threatens these networks.” After all, they note, “researchers in the US and Europe have shown that young people who grow up without both parents are disadvantaged over peers who do, and this effect persists when the effects of reduced economic resources are controlled.”

The authors of the new study hope their findings will guide public officials crafting “deliberate strategies that build social capital as part of risk reduction and positive youth development programming.”

What could be more important to such strategies than measures that foster enduring parental marriages?


(Beth Dail Marshall et al., “Social Capital and Vulnerable Urban Youth in Five Global Cities,” Journal of Adolescent Health 55.6 [2014]: S21-S30.)