How a House Can Shape a Child’s Future

A new study from Cleveland looks at the correlations between living conditions and kindergarten readiness.

Dilapidated houses in the Cleveland area. (Alexia Fernández Campbell)

Much has been written about how a child’s environment can hurt or help their development in the first crucial years of life. Researchers have established that poor children who grow up in poor neighborhoods are less likely to succeed than poor children who grow up in wealthier neighborhoods, and last month, I wrote about how a person’s chance of success plays out on the level of a city block.

Zooming in even farther, in a recent study from Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, social scientists wanted to see if a home’s physical condition could be linked to a child’s academic performance. They also wanted to see if dilapidated housing correlated with a higher risk of child abuse, residential instability and lead poisoning, which are also known to hurt academic outcomes in the first years of school.

Cleveland, like other post-industrial Rust Belt cities, has struggled with urban decay and property abandonment since manufacturing jobs (and the people who worked them) began leaving decades ago. The city’s residents, who are mostly African American, were disproportionately affected by the housing crisis. And about 40 percent of Cleveland’s kindergarteners have tested positive for lead poisoning at some point in their short lives.

All these factors seem to be hurting Cleveland’s youngest residents. In their study, the researchers at Case Western looked at the literacy scores of the 13,762 children who entered kindergarten in Cleveland public schools between 2007 and 2010. Then, drawing on public records, they compared those children’s literacy scores to various assessments of the houses they grew up in—including home-quality ratings, property values, and foreclosure and vacant-property rates. They also factored in unpaid property taxes and other liens, which are often signs that a home is falling into disrepair.

One of the most important findings they came across was that the amount of time a child spent living in housing units that were tax delinquent, in foreclosure, or owned by a speculator had significant effects on kindergarten readiness. Children who fared the worst were those who had spent the most time in neglected houses and neighborhoods and, perhaps relatedly, also who had tested positive for lead poisoning. Researchers estimated that these children’s scores were 15 percent lower on literacy tests than those living in the best conditions. Poor housing conditions were also linked to higher rates of child abuse and familial instability, which are known to hurt kindergarten performance. One factor that seemed to have no correlation with a child’s kindergarten outcomes was living in a home with a low market value.

Rob Fischer, one of the authors of the study, says he interprets his research as evidence that public policy should focus on more than just ending family homelessness in urban areas like Cleveland. “The discussion also needs to include getting people into better housing, instead of just being satisfied that they have an address,” says Fischer, who is the co-director of Case Western’s Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development. “There needs to be much more on the quality of housing and moving up toward better housing opportunities.”

One of the report’s strengths was the scope of its sample: It tracked all children entering kindergarten in the city’s public schools. Also, working within the limits of public records, researchers were able to in many cases analyze the living conditions at multiple addresses, if kids’ families had moved. There are a few limitations to the study as well. For one, it relied on a kindergarten test that only measured literacy skills; now the state of Ohio has replaced that test with a more complete assessment of a child’s literacy and social and emotional development. Also, researchers didn’t have data on children enrolled in the city’s private or charter schools. “If we had their scores, we could better assess the impact of better housing conditions on student performance,” says Fischer.

Another limitation is that there is also very little diversity among Cleveland’s neighborhoods and public-school students. About 69 percent of children entering the public school system were African American, and more than three-quarters came from low-income families. Most of the houses in the city were built before 1978, when the federal government banned the use of lead paint. About a third live in homes worth less than $30,000.

The easiest thing cities could do to improve the lives of these children is to limit their exposure to homes with lead paint, says Fischer. Scientists have repeatedly shown the damage lead poisoning has to a child’s brain development. The combination of lead poisoning and bad housing can give a child a serious disadvantage in life. “Together, it is devastating to see their effects,” he says.