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JCHS Reviews Links between Residential Segregation and Outcomes for Children

A paper by Nancy McArdle and Dolores Acevedo-Garcia for Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, A Shared Future: Consequences of Segregation for Children’s Opportunity and Wellbeing, explores the effects of residential segregation on children. The paper finds that black and Hispanic children are far more likely to live in high-poverty and low-opportunity neighborhoods than white children. The authors reviewed research on the negative impact of residential segregation on children.  According to the paper, an average 76% of black children and 69% of Hispanic children live in neighborhoods with higher concentrations of poverty than neighborhoods where the poorest 25% of white children live. Using the Child Opportunity Index, which more broadly combines education, health and environment, and social and economic neighborhood indicators, the authors observed that 22% of poor white children lived in the bottom 20% of neighborhoods in terms of opportunity, while 57% of all black and 45% of all Hispanic children lived in those neighborhoods.   In reviewing the research literature, the authors found mounting evidence for the negative impact of residential segregation on children’s health and long-term economic success. One analysis of HUD’s Moving to Opportunity program, conducted by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence Katz, found that children who moved from high-poverty to low-poverty neighborhoods before the age of 13 experienced greater earnings and higher rates of college attendance as adults when compared to children who remained in high-poverty neighborhoods. Another study found that children residing in communities with lower property crime rates had better health outcomes when it came to anxiety, depression, obesity, asthma, and neurodevelopmental disorders. 

The authors also reviewed research on neighborhood and school segregation, finding significant and increasing racial and economic segregation in the nation’s school systems. One study conducted by Heather Schwartz involved children in public housing who were randomly assigned to housing in different neighborhoods and school poverty rates. Elementary school children assigned to housing with access to low-poverty schools eventually outperformed their peers in moderate-poverty schools in both reading and math. Moreover, the achievement gap between public housing children assigned to the most advantaged schools and non-poor students was cut in half for math and by a third for reading by the end of elementary school. The authors also discussed the value of integrated schools and communities in facilitating the development of cross-cultural understanding from an early age.   

The paper concludes by discussing the importance of policies that promote neighborhood integration, including affirmatively furthering fair housing, enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, incentives for construction of affordable housing in high opportunity neighborhoods, and inclusionary zoning. The authors suggest such policies would also likely reduce school segregation.