In Economically Improving Neighborhoods, the Rising Tide Lifts Some Boats Higher Than Others

11/13/2013 06:20 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

An increase in demand for urban living in some parts of the U.S. is prompting concerns that wealthier incomers could displace long-term residents. But an influx of higher-income households does not always lead to displacement of low-income ones. Could the arrival of higher-income residents provide educational benefits for the low-income residents who remain? New research suggests the answer may be a qualified yes.

Kids from low-income communities, on average, graduate from high school at substantially lower rates than children in more advantaged neighborhoods. Futures tend to be bleak for high school dropouts. When compared to their peers with high school diplomas, dropouts have dramatically higher rates of unemployment, incarceration, obesity and smoking . Most efforts to strengthen educational outcomes focus on improving the classroom experience. But given the stronger school performance of children from affluent neighborhoods, some have sought to help low-income children move to higher-income neighborhoods. A demonstration of this approach called Moving to Opportunity found that the promised educational benefits did not materialize, perhaps because the movers did not end up staying very long in their new low-poverty neighborhoods. Another study, however, found strong educational benefits among children who moved into public housing developments served by low-poverty schools.

An alternative way for low-income children to access neighborhoods with lower poverty rates is to stay in a changing neighborhood. The rising rents that typically accompany an influx of middle- and higher-income households often force low-income residents to leave their communities. But this displacement is not inevitable, especially when communities adopt proactive policies to preserve existing affordable housing and ensure that a share of newly developed housing is affordable.

What remains unclear is how the influx of middle and upper income residents might impact the lives of the low-income children who reside in these neighborhoods. It is possible that as middle and upper income families move into the neighborhood, they bring with them increased local tax revenue, the social capital necessary to improve local schools, and an increase in the number of high achieving adults to serve as potential role models. Although these changes might be seen as promoting educational success, it is also possible that residents of low-income neighborhoods will suffer as they compete for status and resources with their new and more advantaged neighbors.

In a paper presented last week at the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management Fall Conference, William R. Johnston, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, provides evidence that living in a an economically improving neighborhood may yield benefits for some students but not others. Johnston's study drew on data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and used a novel combination of advanced statistical techniques to match adolescents living in urban neighborhoods that experienced economic growth to otherwise similar peers residing in economically stable or declining neighborhoods. He then compared the rates of high school graduation for these "statistical twins" who did or did not reside in an improving neighborhood. This sophisticated new approach helps isolate the role that the neighborhood's economic transition may have had on the adolescents' educational attainment.

The study found that kids who lived in improving neighborhoods graduated from high school at a substantially higher rate than their otherwise similar peers whose neighborhoods were economically stable or declining. However, these differences appear driven primarily by increases in achievement for girls. Under the main approach taken in the study, graduation rates for girls in economically improving neighborhoods were a stunning 23 percentage points higher than girls in non-improving neighborhoods while the corresponding difference for boys was small and not statistically significant. Johnston also found that living in an improving neighborhood provided a substantial boost to graduation rates for white students but did not yield similar benefits for African American students.


Although the study could not identify why living in an economically improving neighborhood might be beneficial for girls but not boys and white but not African American students, these differences raise some important questions about how community-level factors may shape young people's educational attainment. The author notes that prior work has also shown educational attainment to be more positively associated with high neighborhood income for white compared to African American students. He suggests that the white teenagers in the study may be from families with higher levels of social, political, and economic capital and are therefore better able to take advantage of the modest improvements in neighborhood schools that flow from incremental changes in a neighborhood's income mix. The differences for boys and girls suggest that gender may mediate the relationship between neighborhood change and individual success but the precise reasons why remain unclear.

Social scientists have long argued that neighborhoods play an important role in shaping children's long-term academic attainment. This study supports this assertion but also suggests a need to focus on broadening the educational benefits that may flow from economic growth. In particular, educators working in economically changing neighborhoods should redouble their efforts to support the males and students of color who may require more than a modest degree of neighborhood change to achieve educational success.

Jeffrey Lubell is Director of Housing Initiatives at Abt Associates. Prior to joining Abt, Lubell served as Executive Director of the Center for Housing Policy from 2006 to 2013.

Todd Grindal is an Associate/Scientist with Abt Associates where he provides expertise on the impact of public policies on young children and children with disabilities. Prior to joining Abt, Dr. Grindal was a Julius B. Richmond Fellow at Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

Graphical and research support from Gabe Schwartz