Families have social capital, or access to resources and beneficial relationships through their personal or organizational networks (Coleman, 1988; Putnam, 1995). These networks prove critical for meeting a variety of individual’s personal and social needs. Recent research examining the amount of social capital, interpersonal resources and connections present in American communities suggests that there have been significant declines over the past several decades in the degree to which Americans socialize with their neighbors and trust other people, along with a loosening of bonds within the family (Putnam, 2001).
The degree to which family members trust others in their neighborhoods, their sense of community, and their concern for their safety are important factors in community involvement. In addition, participating in formal and informal social networks in a neighborhood provide families with more social connections, which, in turn, can support good parenting (Sampson, 1992). Families can feel socially isolated in communities where such networks are nonexistent, which, in turn, can negatively affect parenting (Furstenberg et al., 1993; Pinderhughes et al., 2001).
The interpersonal networks shared by family members, and the degree to which individuals are socially connected to the community can play a role in coping with hardships and in providing opportunities to succeed. For instance, neglectful parents tend to have fewer connections to others than their non-neglecting counterparts, and as such, fewer potential sources of support (Coohey, 1996). Formal social service interventions can provide parents with support they may be missing from natural social networks (DePanfilis, 1996), so ensuring access to those services is essential.
Research has found that the composition of interpersonal networks is related to family well-being. A network comprised of friends rather than family members has been found more likely to be associated with a parent’s perceptions of support from the network. Furthermore, the composition of the network proved more important than the size of the network (Tracy, 1990). This finding suggests that kin-dominated networks tend to be more obligatory than voluntary when contrasted with friend-dominated networks. However, cross-cultural research suggests that the presence of kin living nearby can help share some of the childcare responsibilities, for example, that parents might otherwise bear by themselves (Chen et al, 2000). Individuals who have networks in which a large proportion of the members are critical of them report less social support, while reciprocal helping relationships are positively related to perceptions of support. Single parents seem to perceive less support and generally have more conflicted networks (Tracy, 1990). Having a diverse social network has even been found to be related to higher resistance to upper respiratory infections such as the common cold (Cohen et al., 1997).
As social attachment to others affects individual well-being, so does physical access to community resources. Research suggests that, for urban residents, access to public transportation is a significant factor in determining participation in the labor market (Sanchez, 1999). Technological and transportation advances in society have served to expand the scope of individuals' social networks beyond the neighborhood, as people's workplaces, houses of worship, and other social groupings take place in contexts that are more spatially dispersed (Rankin & Quane, 2000). Therefore, for those without their own transportation, ready access to public transit from home to work is a critical factor in their employment options, as well as in their access to social networks beyond their neighborhood. Also, the presence of community centers and safe recreational areas in a neighborhood can support families in positive ways (Pinderhughes et al., 2001). In addition, anecdotal reports indicate that internet connections such as email and instant messaging can be important to disabled adolescents who are home-bound.
Often compounding low-income families access to networks is the finding that residents of poor neighborhoods tend to have fewer friends who are stably employed or college-educated, and more who are on public assistance (Rankin & Quane, 2000). There are thus less resources for parents to draw upon, fewer role models for children, and even negative neighborhood effects on parental warmth have been found, after controlling for family socioeconomic status (Pinderhughes et al., 2001). A related phenomenon involves the disruption of social organization in communities deeply afflicted by poverty. Many high-poverty neighborhoods have experienced the flight of community institutions, such as businesses, churches, social clubs, and community associations. These institutional resources can have substantial benefits for families, particularly those that have few resources of their own (Wilson, 1996).