Boys from low-income families who grow up alongside wealthier neighbors tend to fare worse, not better, according to a new 12-year study from Duke University. In fact, the greater the economic gap between the boys and their neighbors, the worse the outcome.
“Our hope was that we would find economically mixed communities that allowed low-income children access to greater resources and the opportunity to thrive,” said Candice Odgers, Ph.D., associate director of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy. “Instead, we found what appears to be the opposite effect.”
The researchers followed 1,600 children in urban and suburban areas of England and Wales from birth to age 12. They conducted intensive home assessments, surveyed teachers and neighbors, and collected additional data including census information and parent reports.
The team also used Google Street View images to evaluate neighborhood conditions within a half-mile radius of each child’s home. The virtual survey revealed information about housing conditions, parks, the presence of graffiti, and more.
The findings showed that in economically mixed settings, low-income boys got more involved in antisocial behavior, including delinquent behavior such as lying, cheating and swearing, and aggressive behavior such as fighting.
The negative findings only applied to boys, however. For low-income girls, growing up among more affluent neighbors appeared to have no behavioral effect.
Prior research in the U.S. has also suggested that neighborhood surroundings play a smaller role in the development of girls than boys. One hypothesis is that parents may monitor their girls more closely and keep them closer to home.
Low-income boys who were living in the wealthiest neighborhoods actually exhibited the worst behavior, followed by those in middle-income areas. Neighborhoods classified as “hard-pressed,” where 75 percent or more of the local area was poor, had the lowest rates of antisocial behavior. Odgers said the findings held true from ages five through 12.
A theory called the “relative position hypothesis” may help explain the findings, Odgers said. Previous research has found that children often evaluate their social rank and self-worth based on comparisons with their peers. Simply put, being poor may be more unnerving to a child when he is surrounded by wealthier children.
Many policymakers in England and the U.S. have viewed mixed-income neighborhoods as a potential remedy for the toxic effects of poverty, such as increased risks of crime and delinquency. But the new research suggests that this theory be viewed with caution.
“We are not saying that economically mixed communities are universally harmful,” Odgers said. “However, additional care may need to be taken to ensure these communities achieve their intended outcomes for children.”
Although the study focused on low-income children, the researchers also pulled data on working class, middle class, and more affluent children, and found that they fared worse when they grew up alongside poverty. As the amount of poverty in their neighborhoods increased, their levels of antisocial behavior also increased.
In future studies, the researchers plan to examine the effects of mixed-income neighborhoods on other areas, such as educational achievement.
“These findings are troubling given the growing divide between rich and poor,” Odgers said. “They suggest that additional supports may be needed for low-income children who are growing up in the shadow of wealth.“
The findings are published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
Source: Duke University