Aims: Previous studies have found that stress contributes to problem drinking, while social support can buffer its effects. However, these studies are confined largely to middle-class and general populations. We extend what is known by examining how the unique stressors and forms of social support experienced by women in poverty impact alcohol problems over a 4-year time-period.
Design, setting and participants: This prospective study used generalized estimating equations (GEE) transition modeling and four annual waves of survey data from 392 American mothers receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) in a large Northern California county.
Measurements: We examined the effects of neighborhood disorder, stressful life events and economic hardship on psychological distress and problem drinking over time, and whether social support moderated these relationships for women in poverty.
Findings: Neighborhood disorder and stressful life events increased significantly the risk for problem drinking, largely through their effect on psychological distress. We found little evidence, however, that social support buffers poor women from the effects of these stressors.
Conclusions: Women in poverty are exposed to severe, chronic stressors within their communities and immediate social networks which increase vulnerability to psychological distress and problem drinking. The finding that social support does not buffer stress among these women may reflect their high level of exposure to stressors, as well as the hardships and scarce resources within their networks. If the 'private safety net' of the social network fails to provide a strong buffer, more effective environmental interventions that reduce exposure to stressors may be needed to prevent alcohol problems in poor women's lives.