Kids play in a public housing complex in New Orleans. Lee Celano/Reuters

Children who are already flourishing get an educational boost, but those who’re struggling fare worse than peers in non-assisted housing, a new study finds.

How does living in subsidized housing change the academic forecast for low-income kids? Previous research suggests: not much at all.

But a new study published in the American Journal of Community Psychology presents a new and nuanced answer. The effect of living in subsidized housing isn’t the same for all kids: Those who are already flourishing at school benefit, while the ones who’re struggling actually do worse compared to peers from similarly low-income families without housing assistance.

“Studies have shown assisted housing has no effect on children, but what we found, looking at subgroups, is that this is not a one-size-fits-all situation,” said Sandra J. Newman, a public policy professor at Johns Hopkins University who co-authored the study, in a release. (Note: housing assistance in this study includes voucher-assisted market rate housing, public housing, and affordable housing units built using tax credits and government concessions.)

Newman and her colleague Scott Holupka dug into information from an extensive household survey that’s been tracking American families over decades in addition to government housing and socioeconomic datasets. Using these, they analyzed the educational performance of kids who were 13 to 17 years of age between 2002 and 2007. Of them, 194 had received rental assistance in the form of vouchers or lived in public housing around a decade prior. Another 215 were eligible for subsidies, but did not receive them. (The total sample size of the analysis is small, but the researchers have put it through additional statistical wringers to show that the results have basis.)

When they compared the educational and behavioral outcomes of kids in these groups, overall, they found no detectable effect—that’s consistent with previous research. But when they looked closer at the variation within the sample set, they found a split: If a child in assisted housing was already doing well at school, he or she was likely to score eight percent higher on standardized reading, math, and behavioral tests later on, compared to peers who had lived in market housing. The opposite was true for the kids on the lower end of the scholastic ladder.

The researchers can’t conclusively point to the reason behind these results, but they’ve eliminated a few explanations. Differences in neighborhood quality—which has a bearing on the economic and health outcomes of kids—and housing quality don’t explain the split.

When you think about it, the educational boost that some kids in assisted housing experience makes intuitive sense. Via the paper:

Providing an affordable and physically decent place to live, assisted housing might have beneficial effects on low-income children either directly, or indirectly through positive effects on parents or primary care-givers, which then are conveyed to children through such mechanisms as better parenting and less family stress.

It’s possible these benefits are not enough to offset the more severe problems that kids on the lower end of the academic spectrum face. The study’s authors found, for example, that many of the low-performing kids had special educational needs, and that their families tended to move around a lot. Conceivably, even when they move into cheaper housing, these problems persist, and in some cases, even worsen.

“[Subsidized housing] isn’t working as well for special education kids and residentially unstable families,” Newman says. "Its main goal is to provide decent safe housing, but families who live in them have a wider range of needs—and they have to be served in other ways.”

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