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When Your House Is Not a Home: The Tragedy of Concentrated Poverty

March 2016

 

On the afternoon of August 15, 2015, Jamyla Bolden came home from Koch Elementary School in eastern Missouri to play with her friend Akeelah on Ellison Drive, where the Bolden family lived. They probably danced until the sun set. (Jamyla was known for making up new dance routines.) Then, Jamyla came inside and sat on her mother’s bed to do her homework, where she was still sitting when bullets shot through the window and tore into her body.

When the police arrived, she bled to death in their arms. She was nine years old.

This is the curse of concentrated poverty. No child deserves this kind of home.

When we talk about child development, we usually focus on parenting and school programs. Studies have found, for example, that poor parents read less to their children than their more affluent counterparts, with the result being that poorer children have less developed vocabularies and cognitive skills upon entry into grade school.

This study, and others like it, are examining direct factors. The parents read directly to their children. Head Start directly exposes children to educational environments earlier. The Common Core directly teaches children using a specialized curriculum. In each case, energy is purposefully directed to students with the goal of improving their development.

Recently, though, researchers have been looking at how indirect factors affect a child’s development.  A few miles down the road from Koch Elementary School is Washington University in St. Louis, where a team of researchers are studying the effect of poverty on children’s brains. They look at two regions in particular: the “hippocampus,” which deals with memory and learning, and the “amygdala,” where we process stress and emotion. A few months after Jamyla Bolden’s tragic death, the researchers published MRI scans that showed these regions were significantly smaller and less connected to the rest of the brain when the kids were raised in poverty.

The Washington University findings are part of a growing body of evidence showing the cognitive damage that poverty wreaks on people. It stresses their immune system and saps their mental capacity. It makes it harder to concentrate and easier to fall into depression. Adults make poorer investment decisions, and children perform worse at school. Earlier this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics officially declared poverty to be “unacceptable and detrimental to the health and well-being of children,” calling for a significant increase in aid and investment to eradicate it.

Housing researchers have confirmed these conclusions across the board. Children’s cognitive achievement falls when their family spends more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Sustainable, affordable housing is linked to better physical and mental health and better educational outcomes. Children behave better and develop healthier in higher quality housing.

Critically, these effects spill over across the neighborhood. Kids do better in school when their neighbors do better. When their neighborhoods are safer and less stressful, they’re less likely to drop out and more likely to work out. One recent study found that standardized test scores go down when kids live on a block that experienced violent crime in the preceding week. The built environment shapes our lives in so many ways, it is impossible to deny that our ability to grow and succeed in life is deeply grounded at home.

Some of our leaders want to invest less in these poor neighborhoods. They want to cut aid to poor families and block construction of affordable housing. They want to give up on public schools and give in to harsher policing. This is wrongheaded and counterproductive.

Whenever I hear these excuses, I think of children like Jamyla Bolden. These are our babies. They are innocent, and they are dying. We, as their collective guardians, have failed them.

Akeelah can’t even walk down Ellison Drive anymore. The first time the school bus passed Jamyla’s house after the shooting, Akeelah had a panic attack. No home should make a child feel that way.

I keep coming back to the following question: Imagine, for just a moment, that you live on Ellison Drive. Where do you go in your house when you hear gunshots outside?

One elementary school principal was asked this question in Los Angeles a few years back, and his students were shocked when he replied, “I’ve never heard gunshots in my neighborhood.” They could not conceive of such a place.

If you, like the principal, don’t immediately know the answer, it’s a question that should haunt you. For it shows just how fortunate you are that you never have to think about it.

If, on the other hand, your life depends on the answer, you are not fortunate at all. Your house is not a home. It’s a bunker in a war you didn’t sign up for.

This should not stand. Let’s work together so that we all may find peace—and not poverty—in a place we can truly call home.

This article is written by Dr. Raphael Bostic. He is the Judith and John Bedrosian Chair in Governance and the Public Enterprise at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California.

Photo Credits:

Let Kids Grow Up photo courtesy of Jeremy Gorner, Chicago Tribune

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