Neighborhoods are important to child development, new study finds

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January 31, 2020

The neighborhood that a child grows up in matters for a child’s health and development, according to a new study published through The Heller School for Social Policy and Management, in collaboration with diversitydatakids.org. The study says that living in certain neighborhoods not only affects health and education in a child’s youth, but also their future outcomes. 

Neighborhoods influence a variety of aspects of our daily life, according to the study. This includes the amount of green space that we can interact with, the type of food that we eat, including its cost, the quality of schools, the amount of pollution and the quality of water.

The study utilizes the Child Opportunity Index (COI) 2.0, an updated version of the original COI that was released in 2014. The Child Opportunity Index is “an index of neighborhood resources and conditions that help children develop in a healthy way,” according to an article by Diversity Data Kids. The index combines data from 29 different neighborhood-level indicators into a single composite measure. 

These indicators cover three major domains: education, health and environment and social and economic factors. This is also the first single consistent metric of contemporary child neighborhood opportunity in the country, and provides a national coverage of data, covering around 72,000 neighborhoods around the United States and 67 percent of children that live in the United States. 

The child opportunity score is a metric from one to 100 that ranked all 72,000 neighborhoods in the U.S. according to their child opportunity. “The Child Opportunity Score for a given metro area summarizes the neighborhood opportunity experienced by the typical child in that metro and allows us to make comparisons between metro areas,” according to the report.  

The new report highlights the importance of neighborhoods for children. “Research shows that poor children who live in higher opportunity neighborhoods have lower stress levels than poor children in low-opportunity neighborhoods,” writes the study. 

Neighborhoods where local schools have higher graduation rates or a large proportion of adults with college degrees instill in children the message that “education is valued and attainable,” the study writes. The study also found that the neighborhood where a child grows up also has long-term effects such as health, life expectancy and income as adults. 

The study also found that there was a geographic pattern to child opportunity across the United States, with children living in metropolitan areas in the southern part of the United States having lower opportunity than those that lived in the northern area. In particular, the Plains states and New England had the highest-opportunity metropolitan cities. 

Bakersfield, CA received the lowest child opportunity score out of the 100 cities that were analyzed, with a score of 20, according to the study, while Madison, WI, was the best place for children, with a score of 83. Four out of the five lowest-scoring cities were in California.

21 percent of families in Bakersfield live in poverty, the study found, “which means limited economic resources for families to invest in their children’s wellbeing.” On the other hand, only nine percent of families in Madison live in poverty. 

The school environment in Bakersfield was also found to be more difficult than in Madison. “In the public school of the typical child, 24 percent of teachers have less than three years of teaching experience, which makes it difficult for schools to address the challenges that many students face coming from families that live in poverty,” writes the report. “In contrast, in Madison, only 10 percent of teachers have limited experience.” 

Professor Richard Gearhart, an assistant professor of Economics at California State University, Bakersfield (CSUB), was surprised to see that Bakersfield was ranked last. “Though I expected Bakersfield to be lower than average (perhaps even in the lowest quartile), dead last is a bit hard to correlate with a number of recent indicators that we have seen,” Gearhart wrote to The Hoot in an email. One such indicator cited by Gearhard is that the “value-added” of CSUB is one of the top in the country. 

Gearhart wrote in a comment to The Bakersfield Californian that the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), which was used in the study to determine child opportunity scores, are not always the most accurate way to collect data. 

“An MSA is a geographical region with a relatively high population density at its core (urban center) and close economic ties throughout the area,” he wrote to The Hoot. “It’s a standard unit of measurement because (other than individual data, which can be hard, or impossible, to collect), it is one of the smaller units that is consistently measured for a variety of social, demographic and economic indicators on a consistent basis.”

Gearhart further explained that one of the major issues with an MSA is that it can include areas that do not have strong ties to the core city. In the Bakersfield MSA, residents live in Kern County, which is split into “East Kern” and “West Kern,” which are separated by a mountain range. Gearhart explained that “East Kern” was supported by an air force base, while “West Kern” had oil and agriculture. 

“We are over two standard deviations higher than the mean total area and two standard deviations smaller than population or housing units per square miles,” Gearhart added. “What this suggests is that there are considerable geographical explanations for lack of access (or educational inadequacies) related to location choice, rather than standard models which suggest other, economic, barriers to care.” 

Gearhart’s biggest issue with the study is that money follows the research. “There are some areas that these insights can help: school funding, identifying neighborhoods that need additional educational resources, etc.,” he explained. “But, it misses some of the geographical and population constraints that can’t be changed.” 

When asked about her thoughts on some of the topics that Gearhart brought up in his article, Professor Dolores Acevado-Garcia (HS), one of the main researchers on this study, told The Hoot in an interview that Gearhart was missing the main findings and points of the study.

Acevado-Garcia explained that although the points about geographical and population constraints in cities across the country are noteworthy, the main purpose of this study was to show the public the amount of differences and disparities within each city that a child would experience and how that would affect how he or she grows up. 

The researchers knew that there are very different opportunities in Boston, MA, than in El Paso, TX; however, they determined that this was because of the amount of economic development that is present in each area. And while this information is very important and has a larger societal impact, they did not want to emphasize this in their findings. 

When conducting their research, the researchers’ main lens and finding was that inequality is higher in smaller areas. Places such as Hartford, CT, Detroit, MI and Rochester, NY have the biggest divides in the percentage of people living in high-opportunity neighborhoods compared to those living in low-opportunity neighborhoods. 

“This person [referring to Gearhart], I’m almost sure that they were just very agitated and obviously wouldn’t understand because this is a very emotional topic, right,” Acevado-Garcia told The Hoot. “If you’re in Bakersfield and someone is writing about you as one of the worst areas in the country, of course you want to know all the explanations. Of course that’s very important. But he’s missing the point.”

Acevado-Garcia explained that the main reason she and her colleagues had for creating the report was “describing how much variation or inequality is there in neighborhood environments for kids across the country.” She told The Hoot that neighborhoods right next to each other may have completely different child opportunity scores.

“In Detroit, you have neighborhoods that have a [child opportunity] score of 2. So, literally, by national standards they are some of the lowest, very lowest opportunity neighborhoods in the entire country,” Acevado-Garcia told The Hoot. “You would think that neighborhoods that are right next to each other would more or less be ‘on the same page,’ but this was not the case.”

The study found that in some cities across the United States, there was only a nine percent variation, while in other parts, there was a 91 percent variation between neighborhoods that were in the same area. 

Acevado-Garcia further explained that while these findings are surprising, the findings from the report will help point out potential policy solutions that could be put in place to help children in low-opportunity neighborhoods.

One of those solutions that she believes will really help the issue is putting in place more housing policies for families that are low-income and receive assistance from the government. In addition to receiving aid, these families will also receive information and counseling to try and find housing in higher-opportunity neighborhoods because they often do not have the information on where these affordable places are in high-opportunity neighborhoods. 

Acevado-Garcia told The Hoot that she is already seeing multiple “people on the ground” interacting with the data that was published to help guide them to some solutions to the problems that were presented in the study. In the future, she hopes to further look into the racial inequity and the differences in health between neighborhoods. 

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