Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

A new study sheds light on just how much the quality of a neighborhood can affect a child's future success

Poor neighborhoods have long been assumed to have a negative impact on the children who grow up there – on their future job prospects, their educational attainment, even their likelihood as adults of moving out of “bad neighborhoods” and into more prosperous ones. A new study, published in the October issue of the American Sociological Review, puts some disturbing data behind this phenomenon. Growing up in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, the researchers found, significantly reduces a child’s chances of graduating from high school.

Even more concerning: The longer a child lives in such a neighborhood, the more harmful the effect. And this was more pronounced for black children: their chances of graduating if they live in an affluent neighborhood can be as high as 96 percent, but drops to 76 percent if they live in a disadvantaged neighborhood. White children in poor neighborhoods, by contrast, have an 87 percent chance to graduate, compared to 95 percent in rich neighborhoods. 

The researchers, Geoffrey Wodtke and David Harding of the University of Michigan and Felix Elwert of the University of Wisconsin, sought to measure the “full impact of a lifetime of neighborhood disadvantage.” They based their findings on longitudinal data following more than 4,000 children from age 1 through age 17. They defined disadvantaged neighborhoods as those with high poverty, unemployment and welfare caseloads, as well as high numbers of households headed by single mothers and few well-educated adults.

The results suggest that such neighborhoods may have an even more profound impact on the lasting educational success of children than has been previously measured, and that where a child grows up may even impact his or her long-term cognitive development, well after he or she moves out of the neighborhood.

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