Mean Streets: Kids’ verbal skills drop in bad neighborhoods

You can take a child out of a severely disadvantaged neighborhood and move to a nicer part of town, but you can’t always take a bad neighborhood’s harmful effects on verbal development out of the child.

That’s the implication of a new, long-term study of children from various Chicago neighborhoods. Kids living in the most disadvantaged communities displayed marked declines in age-appropriate verbal ability over a 7-year span, even after moving to better areas, reports a team led by Harvard University sociologist Robert J. Sampson.

On average, children who at some point lived in neighborhoods characterized by “concentrated disadvantage” exhibited decreases of 4 IQ points on later standardized tests of vocabulary and reading skills. Comparable verbal losses occur when a child misses 1 year of school.

Concentrated disadvantage consists of a high rate of welfare recipients, high levels of poverty and unemployment, racial segregation, and large numbers of female-headed households and children per household.

Exposure to concentrated disadvantage exerted harsher verbal effects on the youngest kids, the researchers say.

“Taking steps to invest in neighborhoods directly, by creating safe public spaces and quality learning environments for children, is likely a cost-effective way to mitigate the harmful consequences of concentrated disadvantage,” Sampson says.

The new findings will appear in an upcoming Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Sampson’s group studied 2,226 children, ages 6 to 12, living in poor, middle-class, and upper-class sections of Chicago. Kids and their parents or caretakers were tracked from 1995 through 2002. In that time, about half of the participants moved from one Chicago neighborhood to another or to other parts of the United States. Interviews with children and caretakers occurred at the study’s start and twice more, every 2 to 3 years. At each interview, the children completed a vocabulary and reading test.

The researchers focused on the 772 African-American children in the study. Almost one-third of the black children lived in areas of concentrated disadvantage in 1995, compared with virtually no white or Hispanic children.

About 42 percent of the black children living in the worst neighborhoods in 1995 moved to a nondisadvantaged neighborhood later on. This group still showed a 4-point decline in verbal ability.

Concentrated disadvantage undermines verbal development in numerous ways, Sampson suggests. These include the lack of safe public places to play with others and minimal exposure to academic English.

Economist Greg J. Duncan of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., agrees that neighborhood disadvantage worsens the reading skills of black children in Chicago. Yet in 2006, his team reported that—contrary to Sampson’s results—6- to 10-year-old black children in families given vouchers to move to better neighborhoods scored higher on reading tests within 4 to 7 years. These results emerged in Chicago and Baltimore but not in three other cities.

Sampson’s analysis neglects the possibility that if smarter caretakers move to better neighborhoods, then children who move with them will be brighter—for partly genetic reasons—than those left behind, notes Linda Gottfredson, an education professor at the University of Delaware in Newark. Further research needs to track verbal ability in siblings from the same families, where some are full biological siblings and others half or less, she suggests.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.