Affordable housing, stable housing, and educational outcomes

As we noted in a recent blog, being forced to move because of foreclosure can disrupt children’s education and ultimately hurt their chances of success. A June 9 webinar by the Center for Housing Policy adds more evidence for the reality that housing choice is school choice–and the importance of economically integrated neighborhoods to educational improvement.  

It has long been known that children who change schools often or at critical points (such as in kindergarten or high school) can lose out. The impact is apparent even if a child moves to a different home or apartment but doesn’t change schools. The stress and disruption that frequent moving causes, the loss of friends, or increased absenteesim all affect learning. Even teachers feel the impact. A study in Chicago [pdf] found that teachers in schools with high student mobility (students moving to new schools) were less able to gauge the effect of their instruction, more often resorted to review-oriented lessons, and had to slow the curriculum, such that in hyper-mobile shcools, the curriculum by fifth grade was one year behind more stable schools.

Housing subsidies or vouchers can help stabilize families. Too often, however, families have little help or subsidies are limited, and they are forced to move–often to subpar neighborhoods—when the apartment becomes too expensive.  The move itself is a disruption, but compounding that disruption is the quality of the new housing. It may contain hazards such as lead or conditions that spark asthma. The apartment may be smaller and newly crowded, which can impact learning. They also may be forced to double up with other families and thus increase overcrowding. The neighborhoods may lack afterschool resources or other supports. At the extreme, families may find themselves homeless. In 2010, the Department of Education reports that there were 957,000 homeless students enrolled in school.

Whatever the reasons for moving, doing so frequently can interrupt a child’s learning environment or inject a sense of impermanence in life.

That said, stable housing in a neighborhood of concentrated disadvantage is not good either. As Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute noted in the Center for Housing Policy webinar, Affordable Housing’s Role in Improving Children’s Education, to be successful, kids need stable housing, but stable housing is not enough. They should live in integrated neighborhoods, where a mix of adults can serve as role models for work and school, where teacher turnover is lower, where violence is lower, where community resources are greater, and where teen employment options are more numerous.

Therefore, not all moves are bad, if they are to better neighborhoods. Several “housing mobility” programs have helped low-income families living in high-poverty neighborhoods move to lower-poverty, more integrated neighborhoods. A handful of these efforts were rigorously evaluated to test their effectiveness. The Gautreaux program in Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s, for example, found sizable benefits of moving to these neighborhoods. Fewer kids who moved to the suburbs dropped out of high school, and about seven times as many kids whose families moved attended a four-year college than those whose families did not move out of the city.

Later, though, the Moving to Opportunity Program, instituted in five cities, found mixed results. In that program, families were offered subsidies and counseling to move to a lower-poverty neighborhood of their choice. While their parents felt safer and happier in their new neighborhoods, and had fewer mental health stresses as a result, the children saw few sizable improvements.  Neither boys nor girls saw improved school performance seven years after relocating, and boys even declined on some measures of well-being. However, the effects were complicated by the fact that families could choose their neighborhoods and many moved to communities with only slightly lower poverty rates and very similar school environments.

More recently, a mobility program in Baltimore found positive results, with a caveat. As Stefanie DeLuca of Georgetown University explained in the June 9 webinar, a voucher alone to help subsidize housing costs won’t do it. Families need assistance in the form of counseling to help locate housing and to understand the implications of their moves for their kids if they are to successfully relocate and benefit from the new neighborhoods. With the intensive counseling before and after the move, families were making considerable strides.

Interestingly, as Heather Schwartz of the RAND corporation reported on her own study of families moving into lower-poverty school districts, the collective benefits of low-poverty schools (including more active parents and better prepared teachers) outweighed even extra investments in the high-poverty schools in the study. The high-poverty schools registered improvements, but they were not as great as the benefits of moving to lower-poverty neighborhoods. Her take-home point: Integration is a far better investment. As Schwartz said, ”It’s not that the schools in low-income neighborhoods are necessarily bad. You might have effective schools, but when kids are coming with the kinds of stress and problems that exist in highly disadvantaged areas, schools can’t get over that hump alone.”

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