Living in substandard housing can be a leading predictor of future behavioral problems, according to a research brief out this month from the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation.
The report, based on a study from earlier in the year, focused on the effects of inadequate or inconsistent housing on children. And while any number of socioeconomic factors can influence a child’s development, the study found that poor living conditions stood out for low-income children for future trouble.
In the United States in 2005, two million children were living in homes that were physically inadequate, with broken windows, rodent infestations, leaking roofs, and the like.
By 2011, the tally had climbed to more than eight million children who either had their families’ homes foreclosed upon, or were on the brink of foreclosure. As the United States slowly comes back from recession, these vulnerable children remain at risk.
The MacArthur study was performed over a period of six years, focusing on a sample of 2,400 low-income youths, from ages two to 21, in poorer neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio. Three areas of development were measured: academic skills in reading and math, emotional problems, and behavioral problems.
Alongside these trends, the study took into account the quality of the housing in which minors or young adults were living – taking into account quality, stability, affordability, ownership, and whether the family was receiving housing subsidies.
Out of all the factors analyzed, living in low-quality housing – a problem rampant in many South and West Side neighborhoods of Chicago – ranked as the strongest predictor of future problems inside and outside of the classroom.
Students living in inadequate housing preformed worse in school, receiving lower scores in both math and reading evaluation than their peers. Instability also played a role: Athough scores improved for many children after moving to a better home, they still reported lower scores than students who had not previously lived in low-quality or unstable home environments.
Many of the effects of living in substandard housing are fairly straightforward – coming home every day to a place that looks dilapidated or that is literally falling apart is discouraging and depressing – but that does not mean the solution to the problem is simply improving housing quality.
For example, the recent announcement in Chicago that a developer won a $10 million TIF to develop part of troubled Englewood on Chicago’s South Side by putting up a Whole Foods to deal with a lack of quality food in the area and inject badly needed capital in the crime heavy and poor area, doesn’t translate to immediate progress or success.
For those living in better but more expensive conditions, the added financial strain produced other hurdles, such as the need to spend more time at home to compensate for parents working late hours, or even the lack of near-vital amenities such as heating and medical care.
Still, children in households supported at least partially by government programs such as subsidies performed much more in line with those in similar housing without state support, showing that although extra budgetary strain on the family was a problem for low-income youth, partial government aid was a net benefit to them, allowing them to have more livable homes without placing as much of a burden on the working members of the family.
The study seemed to bear out the idea that the government could act effectively to provide a workable solution to the housing problem, as the negative effects of growing up in subsidized housing were very minor compared to the harm done by growing up in an unstable and at times fully unlivable household.
Programs that aggregate housing inspection data from multiple sources to create a comprehensive database of problem areas would be tremendous assets to finding out where to target aid money, and some have been proposed.
Ultimately, however, the MacArthur report found the task of improving the housing situations of these millions of young Americans does rely on support from the state, at least temporarily, in order to weaken the generational chain of poverty that is augmented by poor housing.