It Takes a Neighborhood to Raise an Articulate Child

Mr. Rogers was right: Neighborhoods play an important role in a child's development.
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Mr. Rogers was right: Neighborhoods play an important role in a child's development.

If you grew up in a terrible neighborhood, chances are you have a lot of stories to tell. But you also may have trouble telling them.

According to a new study of black youngsters in Chicago, growing up in a severely disadvantaged neighborhood has a large and lasting negative impact on a child’s verbal ability. These children lag behind their peers for years, with a gap of about four IQ points persisting even after they have relocated to more nurturing surroundings.

“It’s not just poverty,” said Robert J. Sampson, chairman of Harvard University’s sociology department and lead author of the large study, which he conducted with colleagues from New York University and the University of Chicago with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “It’s a clustering of disadvantages, and they compound one another.”

The study is the latest effort of the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, which was founded in the 1990s. Its overall goal, Sampson said, is to examine “the role of community context in the lives of urban youth.” This particular study focused on verbal ability because it is “an important predictor” of success later in life, he said.

To focus on kids living in “severely disadvantaged neighborhoods,” Sampson and his colleagues surveyed Census data, looking for six key characteristics: poverty, unemployment, racial segregation, a high concentration of families on welfare, a high percentage of women as heads of households and a high density of children. “We put that into one overall score,” he said. “It’s a holistic measure.”

When he crunched the numbers and calculated which Chicago neighborhoods fell into the lowest 25 percent on that combined ranking, Sampson was startled to discover the residents were virtually all blacks. No white families and only a handful of Latinos lived in these subsistence-level surroundings.

“That means a lot of comparisons of whites and blacks are very misleading,” he said. “Whites’ starting point (on the lousy neighborhood scale) is basically on the upper end of blacks’. There’s not really overlap.”

So, although it wasn’t designed that way, the study became one of black children. Sampson and his colleagues focused on 772 youngsters ages 6 to 12 and followed their progress over time, up to seven years. Most eventually moved into at least marginally better surroundings; the average length of stay in the worst neighborhoods was two years.

“The core finding is that there is a lag (in developing verbal skills) that persists even if they move out of the neighborhood at a certain point,” he said. “They lost about four IQ points. Everyone (at this age) is learning, but these kids are learning at a slower rate. We’re currently looking further at this, but it appears the effects are largest among the youngest children.”

Why do these kids lag behind in terms of verbal ability?

“We think there are several things going on,” Sampson said. Factors cited in the study include the quality of local schools and the stress such living conditions place on caregivers. “Supervision of kids is hard in this context, with many female-headed households and a high density of kids,” he said.

And then there’s the fear factor. “Parents (in these neighborhoods) are worried about their kids, and they manage them in a different sort of way,” he said. “They restrict their time outside. That leads to a certain isolation that may account for some of the effect.”

Of course, kids are exposed to formal or “academic” English through the media. But they have fewer options to interact with others using such language than children growing up in neighborhoods with more economic and ethnic diversity. “It’s the practicing of verbal skills that is crucial,” Sampson said. “Verbal ability is enhanced and reinforced by the spoken word.”

In terms of public policy, Sampson believes the study reinforces the notion of investing in the early development of children. But it also suggests that the focus of such investment has to be wider than simply schools and families. “It’s about neighborhood contexts,” he said. “We need to think seriously about improving these environments, particularly by creating public areas for children where they can play safely.

“How we do that is the $64,000 question. There are two approaches on the table. One is the housing-voucher approach, which gives people the means to move out of poor neighborhoods. The other is to attempt to improve the neighborhood itself, rather than trying to help people to leave.

“I think the jury is out on which is better. The potential problem with vouchers is it just shifts the location of the problem. On the other hand, neighborhood interventions are hard to carry out and expensive.”
While the study does not prescribe possible solutions, it confirms the underappreciated link between a child’s cognitive development and the neighborhood in which he or she grows up.

“In a recent article in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell wrote: ‘IQ measures not just the quality of a person’s mind, but the quality of the world that person lives in.’ I think our study, in a way, is saying that. The social environment has an impact.”