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Low Performance of Children Tied to “Ecological Risk”

Living in high-poverty neighborhoods has such a detrimental effect on verbal abilities of Black children that it’s the equivalent to missing a year of school, according to a recent study by sociologists from Harvard and New York universities and the University of Chicago.

The study suggests that the environment children live in determines not only their educational success but later “life outcomes,” as the verbal abilities of these children fail to improve as they get older and can’t move out of their impoverished neighborhoods.

“For children, living in disadvantaged neighborhoods appears to contribute to a detrimental effect on trajectories of verbal abilities. This is important because language skills are a proven indicator of success later in life,” says Dr. Robert Sampson, chairman of Harvard University’s department of sociology and one of the lead researchers of the study, “Durable Effects of Concentrated Disadvantage on Verbal Ability Among African-American Children.”

For a period of seven years, starting in the mid-1990s, researchers followed 2,000 school-aged Chicago children from low-, middle- and higher-income neighborhoods as they moved in and out of neighborhoods in Chicago and to other parts of the United States.

Extensive interviews with the children and their caretakers were conducted, and the children were also given vocabulary tests and reading examinations at three different periods.

Upon finding out that Black children were at an “ecological risk” — almost a third of the 772 Blacks that participated in the study were exposed to more disadvantages than White or Latino children — researchers turned the focus of the study to Black children.

By the end of the study, Black children who lived in a low-income neighborhood at the midpoint had fallen behind their peers who lived in higher-income communities, scoring four IQ points below.

According to the study, the negative impact that living in an underprivileged area had on the children’s verbal abilities persisted even when a they moved from the neighorhood to a better area.

The finding, Sampson says, was “an indication of the inequalities that exist in major cities such as Chicago.”

The study is ongoing, with researchers still following the students, some of which are now college-age.

Dr. Patrick Sharkey, assistant professor of sociology at New York University and Dr. Stephen Raudenbush, college chair in the department of sociology at the University of Chicago were also lead investigators in the study.

Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the study was published in the December 2007 edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

–Margaret Kamara

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