Mothers living in low-income neighborhoods experience a myriad of challenges. Studies suggest that neighborhood social cohesion, the social networks and trusting relationships among neighbors, can be a key protective factor for challenges facing low-income families, especially to health and well being. The present study proposes that neighborhood social cohesion is not only important for health and well-being, but also for protection from a hardship experience—hardship being the lived experience of poverty such as not having enough money for food. Additionally the study tests whether neighborhood social cohesion is even more important for the economic success of immigrant mothers as they are likely experiencing greater social isolation due to the cultural challenges of living in a foreign country.
Data are from the Three-Cities Study, a longitudinal examination of mothers and their children living in low-income neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio. As part of the study, three waves of data were collected in 1999, 2000-2001 and 2005-2006. The original data collection consisted of a stratified probability sample of 2400 mothers with children from low-income neighborhoods (defined as 20% poverty rate or higher) in the three cities. A subsample of 759 immigrant and non-immigrant Hispanic mothers will be analyzed for this study.
Three measures of hardship will be tested in the study—food insecurity (13%), housing insecurity (21%), and medical hardship (15%). The two primary predictors in the study are immigrant status (19% foreign born) and perceptions of neighborhood social cohesion. Perceptions of neighborhood social cohesion are measured using a four item scale. Scale scores range from 1 to 4 with higher scores indicating improved perceptions of neighborhood social cohesion (mean=2.81, SD=.77). Hierarchical general linear modeling, using a logit link function, controlling for individual and neighborhood level characteristics, are used to test direct and moderating effects.
Model tests for food insecurity show that neighborhood social cohesion predicts a 31% decrease in odds (log odds=-.37, SE=.13) while immigrant status (log odds=.40, SE=.22) is not a significant predictor. For housing insecurity, results also show perceived neighborhood social cohesion is a significant predictor (log odds=-.24, SE=.11) and that being foreign born is not (log odds=.08, SE=.19). For a unit increase on the social cohesion scale the odds of experiencing housing insecurity decrease by 21%. The last model tests medical hardship and findings show that neither social cohesion (log odds=.12, SE=.13) nor immigrant status (log odds=-.24, SE=.23) protect against a medical hardship. The moderating effects of perceptions of neighborhood social cohesion with immigrant status for all forms of hardship were not found to be significant.
We find that perceptions of neighborhood social cohesion may serve as a protective factor for food and housing insecurity. Findings do not support a differential relationship for foreign born mothers, compared to U.S. born mothers, of social cohesion for material hardship. In fact findings from our study were not able to support that being foreign born, compared to being born in the U.S., mattered for hardship at all.