Panel Paper: Assessing the Benefits of a Rising Tide: The Educational Consequences of Neighborhood-Level Economic Growth

Thursday, November 7, 2013 : 11:30 AM
Scott (Westin Georgetown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

William R. Johnston, Harvard University
While recent census data suggest that concentrated poverty and urban economic decline remain powerful forces affecting the lives of many Americans, economic improvement has also been observed in many previously poor communities since the 1990s (Ellen & O’Regan, 2008; Jargowsky, 2003; Kingsley & Pettit, 2003).  Whether it is due to entrepreneurial city governments, large-scale economic development trends or the aggregation of housing decisions by middle class families, this influx of capital comes to many as a welcome reversal of fortune in previously blighted areas, improved educational outcomes for urban youth.  This growth has sparked much debate about the social and economic consequences for the residents of these evolving communities, particularly children and adolescents (Komro et al., 2011).  Is it safe to assume that youth will benefit from neighborhood transitions in terms of their quality of life and developmental and educational outcomes?  Are the educational prospects for children and adolescents in communities where economic uplift is believed to be occurring, and do some individuals reap more benefits than others? 

While much of neighborhood effects research focuses on the impact of moving from one type of neighborhood to another, this study employs an emerging approach of focusing on individuals residing in neighborhoods that go on to change over time (Leventhal & Brooks-Gunn, 2011; Sharkey, 2012). Using data from the nationally representative National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), this study investigates two specific research questions:  (1) Do adolescents living in urban neighborhoods that are experiencing a decrease in poverty or an increase in relative income have greater educational attainment compared to a matched sample of their peers who reside in economically stable or declining neighborhoods?  And (2) Does the magnitude and direction of this association differ across racial and gender groups?  

I find that females growing up in neighborhoods experience economic growth have greater levels of educational attainment compared to their peers from economically stable or declining communities.  This positive association is not present for males.  In addition, growing up in economically improving contexts has a positive association with educational attainment for white adolescents, but not for black adolescents.  These patterns of differential associations were consistent across models that operationalize neighborhood economic growth both in terms of poverty and median income relative to that of the metropolitan area. 

These findings are informative for the development of neighborhood-based policy interventions that strive to have an educational impact for the residents of the targeted communities.  If a goal of place-based neighborhood development policy is the improvement of educational opportunities for all children, then simply assuming that a rising economic tide will lead to greater educational attainment for all residents would be naïve and unproductive.  As recent evidence from the Harlem Children’s Zone has suggested that specific school-based components are needed in order for neighborhood interventions to influence educational outcomes (Curto et al., 2011), the findings of this study suggest educational interventions targeted at males and students of color should be key components of neighborhood revitalization efforts.

Full Paper: