Neighborhood Adversity, Child Health, and the Role for Community Development

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by Douglas P. Jutte; Jennifer L. Miller; David J. Erickson

Despite medical advances, childhood health and well-being have not been broadly achieved due to rising chronic diseases and conditions related to child poverty. Family and neighborhood living conditions can have lasting consequences for health, with community adversity affecting health outcomes in significant part through stress response and increased allostatic load. Exposure to this “toxic stress” influences gene expression and brain development with direct and indirect negative consequences for health. Ensuring healthy child development requires improving conditions in distressed, high-poverty neighborhoods by reducing children’s exposure to neighborhood stressors and supporting good family and caregiver functioning. The community development industry invests more than $200 billion annually in low-income neighborhoods, with the goal of improving living conditions for residents.

The most impactful investments have transformed neighborhoods by integrating across sectors to address both the built environment and the social and service environment. By addressing many facets of the social determinants of health at once, these efforts suggest substantial results for children, but health outcomes generally have not been considered or evaluated. Increased partnership between the health sector and community development can bring health outcomes explicitly into focus for community development investments, help optimize intervention strategies for health, and provide natural experiments to build the evidence base for holistic interventions for disadvantaged children. The problems and potential solutions are beyond the scope of practicing pediatricians, but the community development sector stands ready to engage in shared efforts to improve the health and development of our most at-risk children.

Read the article in Pediatrics.