Living in communities with thriving small businesses is good for your health, new research shows.

A study by sociologists at Louisiana State University (LSU) and Baylor University found that counties with a greater concentration of small, locally owned businesses have healthier populations — with lower rates of mortality, obesity and diabetes— than those that rely on large companies for industry.

"What stands out about this research is that we often think of the economic benefits and job growth that small business generates, but we don't think of the social benefits to small communities," said Troy Blanchard, lead author of the study and associate professor of sociology at LSU.

The research also shows small businesses are more likely to support bond issues for health infrastructures, recruit physicians, push for local anti-smoking legislation, promote community health programs and activities and support local farmers' markets.

"Our findings suggest that the rewards of a vibrant small-business sector are multidimensional," Blanchard said. "In addition to job creation, small businesses yield important noneconomic rewards to communities that may improve the health of local residents."

The findings are a departure from previous beliefs that communities housing larger big-box retailers fared better.

While higher pay and better benefits historically have been larger business’ key attraction, the study revealed the gap between what large and small businesses are offering employees today isn't nearly as great as it was in the 1970s and 1980s.

The researchers point to a past study that found larger companies showed a 33 percent drop in wages and a substantial decrease in access to health insurance between 1988 and 2003.

"The old way of thinking was that you wanted to work for a big company because of pension plans, health insurance, dental insurance," said co-author Carson Mencken, professor of sociology at Baylor. "But many of them have moved overseas to cheaper labor markets. So what we see are larger retailers, usually next to interstates, that pay low wages and may not even offer full-time jobs with benefits, but instead hire people to work 30 hours a week."

The study of 3,060 counties and parishes in the United States examined data from the 2000 Census of Population and Housing, the 2007 Centers for Disease Control Obesity and Diabetes Estimates, the National Center for Health Statistics Compressed Mortality records from 1994 to 2006, the 2002 County Business Patterns and the 2002 Nonemployer Statistics. It was published online in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society and will appear in its March print issue.

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who spent 10 years working as a newspaper reporter before working in public relations. You can reach him at chadgbrooks@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @cbrooks76.

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