They live under woefully desperate conditions, but street children may be better off than once thought. New findings, presented at the annual gathering of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Buffalo, N.Y., bolster previous work suggesting that homeless urban children are actually healthier and more likely to survive than are their peers who grow up in poor but intact families in agricultural villages.

Timothy Sullivan of the University at Buffalo measured body mass index (BMI)--the ratio of weight to height--in 50 Guatemalan street children ages five to 15. BMI correlates with mortality and morbidity from a number of causes, predicting among other things impaired maternal health and fetal growth, diminished work capacity and productivity and high rates of chronic disease. Although the study subjects were shorter and weighed less than American children of similar ages, their BMI scores were comparable.

"The business of being a street urchin, of making a living on the street, seems to work better for these children than we might anticipate," remarks University at Buffalo anthropologist A.G. Steegman. "Their health as measured by their BMIs doesn't prove they lead a fine life--it is fraught with great danger, including murder and sexual exploitation, especially for the girls--but it does confound our expectations." Such urban homeless children appear to trade off the long-term psychosocial costs of their plight against short-term survival benefits, he adds. "These kids are resilient and self-reliant and adapt physically to the difficult conditions of homelessness."