Study Looks at Link Between Readiness, Post-Recession Rise in Poverty
A new study finds more children are living in high-poverty neighborhoods following the Great Recession—and that has implications for school readiness.
The study entitled, "Family poverty and neighborhood poverty: Links with children's school readiness before and after the Great Recession," was published in the August edition of Children and Youth Services Review.
Using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, the researchers examined cohorts of kindergarten students in 1998 and 2010 and found a big jump in the number of children living in high-poverty neighborhoods, or neighborhoods where 40 percent or more of the residents live below the poverty line.
The researchers also examined the number of families living in moderate-high-poverty neighborhoods, which they defined as having poverty rates between 20-39.9 percent; moderate-low at 14-19.9 percent; and low at 13.9 percent or less.
In 1998, 36 percent of children lived in moderate-low, moderate-high, and high-poverty neighborhoods. By 2010, that number had increased to 44 percent.
The researchers don't know if that's due to families simply becoming poorer, or if things like foreclosures caused families to move to higher-poverty neighborhoods.
"The results are worrying because we found that these children who live in poor neighborhoods regardless of their family's poverty status start school almost a year behind in terms of academic skills compared to children in low-poverty neighborhoods," said Sharon Wolf, the study's lead author and an assistant professor in the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania.
The researchers found that gap was greater than the gap between black and white students among the 1998 cohort and about the same as the gap between children whose mothers have a college degree and children whose mothers have only completed high school.
Kindergarten teachers assessed the children's reading and math skills and found a distinct advantage for children living in low-poverty neighborhoods. Those children scored higher in both areas than children from moderate-low, moderate-high, and high-poverty neighborhoods.
Non-Hispanic white children seemed to experience the biggest changes during the Great Recession. In 2010, these children were 13 percent more likely to live in moderate-low, moderate-high and high-poverty neighborhoods than in 1998.
"It's important to caution that minority children are still significantly more likely overall to live in high-poverty neighborhoods, but these shifts were largest for children that some might consider relatively more advantaged," said Wolf. "The increases in our samples have been in small town and suburban America."
Wolf says the study shows that policymakers should pay more attention to neighborhood poverty rates.
"Most policies to support poor families really just consider family circumstances," said Wolf. "They really don't consider the dimension of neighborhood disadvantage, and it's pretty clear that neighborhood disadvantage does create burden on families beyond their own individual circumstances."
She suggests, for example, that funding for Head Start, the federal preschool program, be expanded and targeted specifically to be in high-poverty neighborhoods, and that everyone in those neighborhoods should be eligible for it regardless of their family income.
The researchers also found that since the Great Recession neighborhoods are more economically diverse, with more nonpoor families living in higher-poverty communities.
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