"There's a lot of talk about how we live in a post-racial society, but that certainly isn't true," says Geoffrey Wodtke, a sociologist at the University of Michigan who studies the effects of growing up in the bad part of town.
He and two other researchers tracked 2,100 children from age 1 to age 17, and they report that children growing up in neighborhoods with high levels of poverty and unemployment are much less likely to graduate from high school. While the results may seem expected, much of the previous research in the field had taken only snapshot measurements of such "neighborhood effects," coming up with small or no impacts on academic performance.
Black children, the new study shows, are seven times more likely than other children to grow up in the worst neighborhoods in the country. If they are stuck in the poorest neighborhoods from age 1 to 17, only 76 percent will graduate by age 20, compared to 96 percent of black children in affluent neighborhoods.
Of course, you don't have to be black to suffer from bad surroundings. Among non-black youth, 87 percent graduate from high school if they grow up in the poorest neighborhoods, compared to 95 percent from affluent neighborhoods.
The longer children spend in bad neighborhoods, the worse their chances of graduating from high school, the researchers found.
"Our results indicate that sustained exposure to disadvantaged neighborhoods — characterized by high poverty, unemployment, and welfare receipt; many female-headed households; and few well-educated adults — throughout the entire childhood life course has a devastating impact on the changes of graduating from high school," they wrote in the American Sociological Review.
The study by Wodtke and sociologists David Harding at the University of Michigan and Felix Elwert at the University of Wisconsin is the first to track the quality of children's neighborhoods every year throughout their entire childhood and adolescence. Wodtke and his colleagues drew on a University of Michigan database that tracked parental employment, income, marital status, education, and family size for the children from 1968 on. They dug up annual information about poverty, unemployment, welfare benefits, high school degrees and jobs based on the United States Census tracts where the children were living — not an easy task, as many families moved several times.
Poor neighborhoods are isolated and racially segregated, with none of the quality schools, day care, grocery stores, pharmacies, and parks that can help promote a child's development and academic achievement; and they are disproportionately smoggy, crime-ridden and dilapidated. All of these factors, the researchers note, have been linked to poor performance in school, often culminating in dropouts.
Dropout rates for black youth actually declined from 21 percent in 1972 to a historic low of 11 percent in 2005, according to Child Trends, a Washington D.C.-based research center. But, the center says, the drop is "at least in part related to increased incarceration rates among black male high school dropouts, which more than doubled between 1980 and 1999. ..."
Wodtke, Harding and Elwert documented a staggering disparity between black children and all others in their rate of exposure to poor neighborhoods. At the age of 10, for example, they found that 69 percent of black children lived in the poorest 20 percent of neighborhoods in the United States, compared to only 15 percent of all other children. What's more, the disparities widened over time. From age 1 to 17, the proportion of blacks living in the most affluent 20 percent of neighborhoods remained unchanged at about 3 percent, while the proportion of all other children in the best neighborhoods increased from 13 percent to 21 percent.
"Children from poor families are doubly disadvantaged because they suffer the harmful effects of family poverty, and also they're more likely to live in poor neighborhoods, which is extremely harmful in its own right," Wodtke said. "The consequences of deindustrialization and disinvestment in urban communities have been devastating for the residents of those areas. Because of racial segregation and racial discrimination where employment is concerned, those effects are concentrated on black Americans."