Thursday, December 20, 2007

Poor neighborhoods hurt students more than low income, study finds

from The Chicago Tribune

By Stephanie Banchero

The isolation and limitations imposed by a poor neighborhood do more damage to a child's verbal and cognitive skills than does a family's low income, according to a new study.

Researchers found that children in Chicago who spent most of their lives in segregated, low-income communities posted lower verbal scores than did children who lived in better communities. This was true whether the children's families were low- or middle-income.

And youngsters who moved into these segregated, troubled communities saw their progress slip, suggesting that the neighborhood social problems -- violence, segregation and lack of good schools -- are the roots of the problem.

The study revealed that living in a disadvantaged community for at least two years lowered verbal test scores by about four IQ points, roughly the equivalent of one year of school.

"If family poverty has a negative effect, moving to a high-risk community makes it worse," said Stephen Raudenbush, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago and an author of the study. "Since language skills are a proven indicator of success in later life, children who stay in these communities are at a distinct disadvantage the rest of their lives."

The six-year study looked at 2,000 lower- and middle-income children ages 6 to 12. Researchers followed the children as they moved in and out of troubled Chicago communities and tested their verbal and reading abilities three times.

The study, which involved researchers from three universities, appeared this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The educational landscape is filled with research that shows low-income students perform poorly on academic measures.

The new research is one of the first to tie the performance not to poverty, but to the corrosive nature of at-risk communities.

"A lot of folks out there have been saying this for decades," said James Comer, professor of child psychiatry at Yale University who founded a popular school program that uses community involvement to boost academic achievement. "These children live in communities with social networks that do not prepare them for school.

"Income is not the most critical thing -- it's the quality of the relationships these children can develop with adults who can give them a capacity to grow."

Researchers found that youngsters who live in depressed, segregated communities for long periods of time have more exposure to neighborhood violence and less access to good schools and safe places to play.

As a result, they found, families in these communities "hunker down" in their homes, providing children less exposure to formal English.

"The stress of violence in the community leads parents to isolate themselves out of fear, and that severely restricted the verbal encounters and social exchanges their children were exposed to," Raudenbush said.

Raudenbush said the problems can reverse themselves if the child moves into a better community. But the reversal takes time.

1 comment:

Athens Job & Family Services said...

There are currently 5.5 million children living in extreme poverty in the United States. Extreme poverty is defined as living in a family whose income is less than 50 percent of poverty. The 2007 poverty level for a family of three is $17,170 annually. That means for a family of three living in extreme poverty, their income would be less than $8,585 a year.

These children live in desperate conditions of homelessness, unsafe housing, hunger and isolation. Their basic needs of food, shelter, clothing and transportation are not being met, let alone their ability to be kids by participating in school or community activities. These children are isolated from society because they are poor. These families suffer, trying to make ends meet without the financial means to do so. As a result, many turn to the welfare system for help.

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program has evolved from a safety net designed to help children and their families to one which insures their deprivation. This has happened in virtually all states at the hands of members of both political parties. TANF cash assistance caseloads dropped dramatically during the first years of welfare reform but have leveled off in the past five years.

There are currently 3 million children nationwide that receive cash assistance through the TANF program. States have the flexibility to design the program to meet the needs of their unique situations, yet are setting policies and issuing benefits that they know will not meet the needs of these families. Most state TANF programs, by design, restrict the income of a family to less than 50 percent of poverty. These children live in families who comply with all of the strict rules of welfare reform, yet the benefits they receive are too low to meet basic human needs.

The latest TANF reauthorization did not focus on the dynamics of why families are left on the cash assistance rolls, it focused more on paperwork. Instead of increasing maximum payment standards, states are choosing to spend less money on basic cash assistance and implementing new programs or increasing services through other programs like child care. Families who rely on cash assistance are desperate. Many cannot work or are struggling to find employment. Some are mentally or physically ill or disabled. Not that programs like child care or other support services for the working poor are unimportant; they are greatly needed. But families living at half the poverty level should not be asked to sacrifice their basic needs to support the working poor at much higher incomes. That support should come from those able to afford it.

Meeting basic needs for our most needy citizens should be the first priority for TANF funds, not the last. Now is the time to provide a decent standard of living for America’s poorest children.

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