Mother's Community Participation and Child Health

According to this analysis of an Indonesian longitudinal study of family health and welfare, when mothers of the most disadvantaged children participate in the community, their children’s health improves. This suggests community participation may be an important mechanism to help break the intergenerational cycle of poverty.

Although the benefits of social capital have long been studied, it has been difficult to tie social capital to children’s health. The Indonesia Family Life Survey provides a unique opportunity to examine this link in a developing country due to the wealth of longitudinal social and health data available, as well as the rich Indonesian cultural tradition of social participation. This analysis relies on data from the survey of 5,144 children whose height was measured in 2000 as an indicator of health, and whose 3,281 mothers (some with multiple children in the study) had provided information in 1997. Community participation was measured by a mother’s involvement in local volunteer organizations not related to children’s health in order to isolate the social capital benefits of community participation and eliminate the expected positive impact of involvement in children’s health organizations.

Key Findings:

  • Older, better educated and healthier mothers with fewer children were more likely to participate in community volunteer organizations.
  • On average, there is no significant benefit to children’s health when their mothers participate in the community.
  • When mothers from poorer households, or who have less than six years of education, participate in community organizations, their children’s health, as measured by a deficit in their height-for-age, benefits significantly. This suggests community participation “may mitigate some of the consequences for children’s health associated with low levels of human capital.”
  • Each additional program in which a poorer or less educated mother participates has a sizable additional benefit to her children’s health.

The authors posit that when mothers participate in community organizations, they learn from their social network, gathering information, advice and access to resources that benefit their children’s health. These factors may be most beneficial to the most disadvantaged families, suggesting community participation might be a mechanism to improve the socioeconomic status of families across generations. The authors call for additional research on this point and note this study demonstrates that social capital has benefits beyond the developed world.