U. of Colorado study finds growing up in bad neighborhood not as harmful as expected

Study shows successful rate of development of children in best neighborhoods not significantly higher than those from disadvantaged neighborhoods

There's good news for children growing up in bad neighborhoods in a comprehensive study led by nationally renowned University of Colorado at Boulder sociology Professor Delbert Elliott.

The 8-year effort analyzing the successful development of children in different kinds of neighborhoods in Denver and Chicago found that children growing up in high-poverty neighborhoods were doing much better than expected. The rate of successful development for children from the best neighborhoods was 63 percent while the success rate for children living in high-poverty, disadvantaged neighborhoods was 52 percent.

"There's an 11-point difference between our worst neighborhoods and our best neighborhoods," said Elliott, director of the CU-Boulder Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence. "That's very surprising."

"The idea that living in high-poverty, disorganized, disadvantaged neighborhoods is kind of a death sentence for kids is clearly not the case," he said. "We're getting kids coming out of those neighborhoods that are doing quite well."

The examination of neighborhoods was one of four integrated studies launched by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Network on Successful Adolescent Development. The portion of the study conducted by Elliott and his colleagues looked at neighborhoods, while three other teams focused on family and school influences on development, and youth development in rural farming areas.

The results were published this fall in "Goods Kids From Bad Neighborhoods" by Cambridge University Press. The study was co-authored by Scott Menard, Amanda Elliott and David Huizinga of the CU-Boulder Institute of Behavioral Science, William Julius Wilson of Harvard University and Bruce Rankin of Koc University in Turkey.

The researchers used U.S. census data, personal interviews and focus groups to study 662 families and 820 youths age 10 to 18 from 33 neighborhoods in Denver, and 545 families and 830 youths from 40 neighborhoods in Chicago. Names of all neighborhoods in the study were changed to protect the confidentiality of the participants.

Relatively little is known about how adolescents from disadvantaged neighborhoods overcome adversity, according to Elliott. While most other studies focus on crime, drugs and the dysfunctional behavior of youth in poor neighborhoods, this study focused on success: the factors that helped adolescents develop into healthy, productive, contributing citizens.

In examining the combined effects of neighborhood, family, school and peer group, the researchers were surprised to find that "success in any one of those seemed to be able to buffer the kids from the negative effects of living in a bad neighborhood," Elliott said. This finding is "very encouraging" because it means that the conditions in all four contexts don't have to improve at once in order to make a difference in children's lives, he said.

It also was somewhat surprising that the impact of each of these social contexts was fairly similar, although not identical, Elliott said. For positive youth development, the family and the school are the two most critical contexts. But for issues of delinquent behavior, drug use and early sexual activity, the critical context is the peer group.

As expected, the family has a strong influence on the behavior of younger children but this influence wanes starting at about age 15 when the school and peer group gain in importance. The good news from this finding is that good family-based interventions are available for parents of younger children, he said.

"We know that we can teach parents how to do a better job of parenting," Elliott said. "That's an intervention in disadvantaged, high-poverty neighborhoods that potentially can have a dramatic effect on youth development. The earlier we can do that the better, given this age effect that we see. You can't wait until kids are 16, 17, 18."

Another key finding was that parents in disadvantaged neighborhoods are doing a pretty good job of parenting. The researchers didn't find that the quality of parenting was strongly related to the type of neighborhood. The tendency for poor parenting, bad schools and antisocial peer groups to cluster in bad neighborhoods was quite weak.

When the difference in financial resources between poorer and wealthier neighborhoods was taken into account, "The quality of parenting was just as good and in some cases better than in more advantaged neighborhoods," Elliott said.

The nature of the parenting was different, however. In disadvantaged neighborhoods, a lot of the parenting dealt with teaching children how to deal with the dangers in their neighborhoods -- the exposure to drugs, delinquency, crime and the dysfunctional behavior of some of the adults and teens who live there, he said.

"A large part of the parenting practice issues for those parents had to do with ensuring the safety of their children," he said.

One of the findings in the companion MacArthur study on families showed that trying to confine kids to the house in a dangerous neighborhood doesn't appear to be a good strategy because teenagers are too apt to sneak out to be with their peers.

"There's such a need on the part of adolescents to be with their friends that if you don't provide positive social contexts for that to happen, it's going to happen anyway, and it's going to happen in some sort of context where you don't have good monitoring and supervision, and then you get some pretty negative outcomes," he said.

A more effective strategy was for parents to get their children involved in afterschool programs, church-related activities or athletics where there is adult monitoring and supervision. This strategy looked like it was "very, very effective," he said.

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Elliott was the senior scientific editor for the U.S. Surgeon General's Report on Youth Violence issued in 2001 and is a national authority on school safety and juvenile delinquency. He is a distinguished professor emeritus of sociology at CU-Boulder.

The Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence is part of the CU-Boulder Institute of Behavioral Science. For more information about the center visit http://www.Colorado.EDU/cspv/.

Contact: Delbert Elliott, (303) 735-2146, Peter Caughey, (303) 492-4007


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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