Penn study shows value of arts and culture on health and wellbeing

Arts and culture enhances society in many ways great and small, but could cultural and creative opportunities contribute to safer and healthier neighborhoods? According to a new study released by researchers at Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2), the answer is yes, particularly in lower income neighborhoods where residents benefit greatly from cultural programs that are community-based.
Previous studies have examined the role of museums and performing arts centers in making cities more attractive to out-of-towners and college-educated “creatives.”
The new SP2 study, led by Mark Stern, the Kenneth L.M. Pray Professor of Social Policy and History, takes a closer look at how the arts and culture enhance the lives of New York City residents in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. The study was supported by the Cultural Agenda Fund of the New York Community Trust and the Surdna Foundation.

Through SP2’s Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP), Penn researchers conducted the study “Culture and Social Wellbeing in New York City” from 2014-16. To understand the social value of the arts in all five city boroughs, researchers compared a range of health and wellbeing data points to the number of cultural assets (including nonprofits, for-profits, resident artists, and participants) in New York neighborhoods.
They identified lower-income communities with more cultural resources than one would presume given the inhabitants’ income.
“We found that neighborhoods with more cultural resources rate better on three measures of social wellbeing—health, personal security, and school effectiveness,” says Stern, who is also co-director of the Urban Studies Program in the School of Arts & Sciences.
The report provides data on cultural assets for hundreds of neighborhoods, and takes a closer look at East Harlem in Manhattan and Fort Greene/Clinton Hill in Brooklyn, neighborhoods deemed “civic clusters” for having many cultural resources. Across the city, low- and moderate-income residents were healthier, better educated, and safer than those in similar communities with fewer creative resources.
The study was controlled for economic wellbeing, race, and ethnicity. The researchers concluded that the presence of cultural resources was associated with an 18 percent decrease in the serious crime rate, an 18 percent increase in children scoring in the top tier of English and math exams, and a 14 percent drop in cases of child abuse and neglect.
“The research clearly demonstrates that access to culture is a defining feature of a healthy community,” says Susan Seifert, co-founder and director of SIAP.
City officials will use SIAP’s data-driven study to inform New York City's first citywide cultural plan to increase healthy communities and boost quality of life for its residents.