Study: With more U.S. children living in high-poverty neighborhoods, schools will see impact

The recession that began in late 2007 and lasted through mid-2009 left more children and their families living in poor neighborhoods. (AJC File)

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

The recession that began in late 2007 and lasted through mid-2009 left more children and their families living in poor neighborhoods. (AJC File)

A new study by researchers at Rice University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Wisconsin looks at the rise in U.S. children -- including a spike in white kids -- living in poor neighborhoods since the Great Recession. That increase affects education, say researchers, because children in neighborhoods with higher levels of poverty start school less ready to learn.

The rise of white kids living in higher-poverty neighborhoods does not mean minority children are faring better.  It just means things grew worse for white children, especially in the South and Midwest.

“Although post-recession, more white kids were living in higher poverty neighborhoods, minority children are still significantly more likely overall to live in higher poverty neighborhoods,” said Rachel Kimbro, a professor of sociology in Rice's School of Social Sciences and founding director of the Kinder Institute's Urban Health Program.

The study states:

Whites saw the highest percentage gains in exposure to neighborhood poverty, as poverty shifted to the suburbs and to the Midwest and South. In fact, between 1980 and 2010, the black-white gap in neighborhood poverty declined, not because blacks made gains but because more poor whites were living in poor neighborhoods. Thus the growth in living in concentrated poverty was larger among whites, despite the fact that urban residents and African-Americans are still much more likely to live in concentrated poverty.

The study looks beyond family poverty to the context of neighborhood poverty in shaping children's early academics:

The data clearly suggest that both family and neighborhood poverty are useful indicators for identifying children who may need extra supports in terms of school readiness skills, and that the characteristics of children who may be in need of these services has changed to include a larger portion of children. Although only a small percentage of all children resided in high-poverty neighborhoods in 2010 (about 4.3% of children reside in neighborhoods with poverty rates of 40% or higher), nearly a quarter of children (23.2%) lived in moderate high-poverty neighborhoods (with poverty rates between 20% and 39%). Regardless of family poverty status, on average these children compared poorly with their peers in more affluent neighborhoods. One approach to help close the school-readiness gap observed across neighborhoods might be targeting Head Start centers to be located specifically in high-poverty neighborhoods, and expanding eligibility to any family living in that neighborhood. Importantly, a recent study showed that Head Start center quality was significantly lower in high poverty neighborhoods, suggesting some explanation for why these programs may not currently be effectively closing these neighborhood gaps.

Researchers cite several conditions in poor communities that may impede the school performance of children:

"…neighborhood contexts may play a significant role in shaping the experiences of children, such as the safety and quality of residential neighborhoods, as well as the quality of institutions and institutional resources available. For young children specifically, parents living in disadvantaged neighborhoods have few options for high-quality child care and education that are both enriching and accessible. High-poverty neighborhoods can also affect young children directly through exposure to more toxins, noise pollution, and other aspects of stressful environments. Finally, neighborhood poverty may also indirectly affect children because of its negative influence on parental wellbeing, which in turn, can affect interactions with children."

Here is the official release: (The excerpts above came from the 17-page study itself.)

More children are living in high-poverty neighborhoods following the Great Recession – a troubling shift because children in these neighborhoods are a year behind academically, according to new research from researchers at Rice University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Wisconsin.

“Family Poverty and Neighborhood Poverty: Links With Children’s School Readiness Before and After the Great Recession” examines how neighborhood and family poverty predict children’s academic skills and classroom behavior when they start school, and whether associations have changed over a period of 12 years that included the 2008 recession. The researchers used data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study and examined cohorts of kindergarteners from across the U.S. in 1998 and 2010.

The research revealed that more children whose parents were not already poor were living in high-poverty neighborhoods following the Great Recession. In 1998, 36 percent of children lived in moderate-low, moderate-high and high-poverty neighborhoods. In 2010, the number rose to 43.9 percent.

The researchers defined a high-poverty neighborhood as one where 40 percent or more of residents live below the poverty line. A moderate-high-poverty neighborhood was defined as having poverty rates of 20-39.9 percent; moderate-low, 14-19.9 percent; and low, 13.9 percent or less.

When broken down by race, non-Hispanic white children had the largest change in terms of living in high-poverty neighborhoods. In 2010 they were 13.2 percentage points more likely to live in moderate-low-, moderate-high- and high-poverty neighborhoods than in 1998. In contrast, in 2010 non-Hispanic black children were only 4.1 percentage points more likely to live in a moderate-high-poverty neighborhood. Hispanic children were 5 percentage points more likely to live in a high-poverty neighborhood in 2010.

Rachel Kimbro, a professor of sociology in Rice's School of Social Sciences and founding director of the Kinder Institute's Urban Health Program, cautioned that these numbers do not mean that things got better for minority groups; it meant that things got worse for non-Hispanic whites. Kimbro said she and her fellow authors are uncertain whether this shift is because higher-income families moved into high-poverty neighborhoods due to home foreclosure or other factors, or families within moderate-poverty neighborhoods losing income and becoming poorer (thus increasing the number of poor residents). Regardless, the results are worrying, she said, because children who live in poor neighborhoods are, on average, a year behind academically, according to standardized math, reading and writing assessment tests of the students.

“Regardless of individual family income, there is something about living in a higher poverty neighborhood that negatively affects education outcomes,” she said. “This is a topic that should be of great concern for educators and policymakers alike.”

Kimbro hopes the research will shed light on the impact of neighborhoods on academic success and will allow educators and policy makers to design interventions to help underperforming students.

Sharon Wolf of the University of Pennsylvania served as the study's lead author, and Katherine Magnuson of the University of Wisconsin served as a co-author. The paper is available online.