How a House Can Shape a Child’s Future

  • 2016-06-29
  • The Atlantic

Much has been written about how a child’s environment can hurt or help their development in the first crucial years of life. Researchers have established that poor children who grow up in poor neighborhoods are less likely to succeed than poor children who grow up in wealthier neighborhoods, and last month, I wrote about how a person’s chance of success plays out on the level of a city block.

Zooming in even farther, in a recent study from Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, social scientists wanted to see if a home’s physical condition could be linked to a child’s academic performance. They also wanted to see if dilapidated housing correlated with a higher risk of child abuse, residential instability and lead poisoning, which are also known to hurt academic outcomes in the first years of school.

Cleveland, like other post-industrial Rust Belt cities, has struggled with urban decay and property abandonment since manufacturing jobs (and the people who worked them) began leaving decades ago. The city’s residents, who are mostly African American, were disproportionately affected by the housing crisis. And about 40 percent of Cleveland’s kindergarteners have tested positive for lead poisoning at some point in their short lives.

All these factors seem to be hurting Cleveland’s youngest residents. In their study, the researchers at Case Western looked at the literacy scores of the 13,762 children who entered kindergarten in Cleveland public schools between 2007 and 2010. Then, drawing on public records, they compared those children’s literacy scores to various assessments of the houses they grew up in—including home-quality ratings, property values, and foreclosure and vacant-property rates. They also factored in unpaid property taxes and other liens, which are often signs that a home is falling into disrepair.