A recent study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities identified an intriguing way to address the low-income achievement gap. According to authors Barbara Sard and Douglas Rice, targeted housing policy could strongly impact poor children’s academic achievement.
Evidence consistently shows that children who live in neighborhoods with concentrated disadvantage typically have lower academic achievement. There’s also a growing body of neuroscience and developmental psychology research on the effects of “toxic stress,” which develops from “being exposed to abuse, neglect, violence, or severe hardship.”[i] Toxic stress is particularly damaging to young children who are still developing – it negatively impacts their cognitive development as well as their physical health.
And now there’s strong evidence that neighborhoods with low rates of poverty can actually improve children’s educational achievement.
“Poor children who live in low-poverty neighborhoods and consistently attend high-quality schools – where more students come from middle- or high-income families and do well academically, parents are more involved, teachers are likely to be more skilled, staff morale is higher, and student turnover is low – perform significantly better academically than those who do not.”[ii]
Barbara Sard and Douglas Rice argue that housing assistance programs can help improve children’s likelihood of living in “high-opportunity” neighborhoods. They point to the federal Housing Choice Voucher program in particular as having strong potential to help families access low-poverty neighborhoods and high-quality schools. As they see it, housing assistance programs are not currently living up to that potential.
“As now administered, the HCV program does not adequately deliver on its potential to expand children’s access to good schools in safe neighborhoods. It can do better.” – Sard and Rice
Here’s what they recommend the Housing and Urban Development Agency do to really help low-income families and their children:
- Incentivize state and local housing agencies to achieve better location outcomes
Incentives could include weighting location outcomes in agency evaluations and strengthening fair housing rules, in order to increase the share of families using housing vouchers in high-opportunity neighborhoods.
- Change policies that discourage families from living in lower-poverty communities
Policies like metropolitan-wide maximum rental subsidy levels and time limits on finding a rental property unintentionally encourage families to stay in high-poverty neighborhoods. Revising these policies could reverse these unintended effects.
- Minimize jurisdictional barriers to families’ ability to live in high-opportunity communities
State and local programs should unify their operations and simplify their procedures, so they can be more effective in promoting access to low-poverty neighborhoods.
- Help families use vouchers for high-opportunity areas
State and local governments should prohibit discrimination against potential renters who hold vouchers, and look into limited tax incentives for landlords who participate in the voucher program.
Giving poor children access to high-quality schools and low-poverty neighborhoods has the potential to positively affect their lives well into adulthood. Policymakers should see these recommendations as a chance to improve opportunities for its citizens in the short and long run.