This 12th edition of Evidence Matters, focusing on housing and children, comes at an opportune time. Secretary Julián Castro recently released “Our Vision,” a document outlining HUD policy goals that together will expand opportunity for all Americans. As HUD approaches its 50th anniversary, the agency is continuing its deep commitment to delivering programs that provide a platform for children and families to succeed. Reaffirming that quality housing and neighborhoods are the foundation that helps children and youth achieve their life goals — and ensuring that children have access to them — are important for maintaining not only the strength of our communities but also our competitiveness in the global economy.
This issue of Evidence Matters examines the evidence base around how housing matters for families and children. A better understanding of the research and lessons learned from previous studies will enhance ongoing policy efforts to improve children’s physical health, behavioral and emotional welfare, school achievement, and economic opportunities. Research investigates how the various dimensions of housing, such as quality, crowding, affordability, housing assistance, ownership, and stability, are linked to children’s development and well-being. Of course, housing’s effect on the development and well-being of children extends beyond the home itself to the surrounding neighborhood. Various neighborhood characteristics may play a vital role in either expanding or limiting opportunity for children and families. Neighborhood effects research examines the causal links between neighborhood contexts and the social and economic outcomes of individual families. A key challenge of this work is untangling the influence of family and individual characteristics from that of the neighborhood, in addition to distinguishing among various correlated neighborhood attributes. The strongest evidence exists on the effects of neighborhood contexts on children.
As noted in a forthcoming article by Patrick Sharkey and Jacob Faber summarizing recent literature in this area, consistent evidence exists linking concentrated poverty or disadvantage with children’s academic and cognitive development. Exactly what it is about neighborhoods that matters, and for whom, is less well understood, but there are several areas of growing evidence. As with housing quality, specific physical aspects of the neighborhood appear to be significant. Air pollution may contribute to respiratory problems and result in school absences, whereas noise pollution may interfere with attention and studying, lowering academic progress. As for the social characteristics of neighborhoods, the research focus is increasingly on areas of highly concentrated disadvantage, which are also associated with high crime and violence. In numerous articles and with various coauthors, Sharkey has documented the effect of concentrated disadvantage on early verbal development and the effect of exposure to violence on student test scores. Further analysis of the cross-site variation in student outcomes in the Moving to Opportunity demonstration by Burdick-Will et al. provides evidence that the positive effects found in Baltimore and Chicago may be driven by students moving out of the most disadvantaged and violent neighborhoods.
These findings are consistent with increasing evidence from the fields of neuroscience and developmental psychology on the ways early exposure to extreme environmental stress affects brain development, including the areas of the brain responsible for executive function. Executive function is central to impulse control and long-term planning, perhaps explaining the relationship between children’s early environment and their cognitive development. This means that the earliest intervention may be the most important, and safety (or lack thereof) may be of singular importance in a child’s environment.
Encouraging families to prioritize the safety of their environment is not an issue; low-income families consistently rank safety as their greatest concern when assessing neighborhoods. Rather, the policy challenge is enabling families to successfully live in safe and healthy neighborhoods. One path to this goal is mobility; the other is improving neighborhoods. On the first, HUD’s proposed rule and process for Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing might provide the type of planning and data needed to support efforts for more meaningful mobility. On the second, federal cross-agency, cross-disciplinary, place-based approaches such as Promise Zones may help communities address interrelated challenges around employment, health, education, and safety. Tackling these interconnected challenges in a holistic way is necessary to positively shape children’s futures.
As the President noted in his January announcement of the first five Promise Zones, a child’s success “should be determined not by the ZIP code she’s born in, but by the strength of her work ethic and the scope of her dreams.” We have increasing evidence, however, that the quality of children’s neighborhoods does determine their prospects, and we need more effective policies to ensure that it does not.
— Katherine M. O’Regan, Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research
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