Expert Commentary

Impact of long-term exposure to concentrated disadvantage on high school graduation

2011 study from the University of Michigan and University of Wisconsin-Madison on the link between disadvantaged neighborhoods and high school graduation rate.


Conventional wisdom has maintained that a child growing up in a neighborhood with low household per capita incomes and elevated levels of violent crime and unemployment is disadvantaged in terms of educational attainment due to cultural isolation, scarce resources and assorted local hazards. However, more recent scholarship has suggested that while neighborhood conditions certainly play a significant role in educational outcomes, the length of time a child spends in such a neighborhood is a critical variable.

A 2011 study by researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin-Madison published in the American Sociological Review, “Neighborhood Effects in Temporal Perspective: The Impact of Long-Term Exposure to Concentrated Disadvantage on High School Graduation,” focuses on the correlation between length of exposure to neighborhood disadvantage and academic performance as measured by high school graduation rates. The researchers recruited 2,800 low-income U.S. households with a one-year-old infant over ten years (between 1968 and 1978), and then tracked the children’s high school graduation rates. Data on student performance was measured against neighborhood information from the GeoLytics Neighborhood Change Database.

Key research findings include:

  • Only about 9% of non-black children spent the majority of their childhoods in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, while 65% of black children were similarly exposed. “Black children, therefore, were about seven times more likely than non-black children to experience long-term residence in the most disadvantaged 20 percent of American neighborhoods.”
  • More than one in three black children and about one in six non-black children remained in a disadvantaged neighborhood throughout their childhoods. But they did not necessarily remain in the same disadvantaged neighborhood: 30% of black children and 44% non-black children moved among different disadvantaged neighborhoods at least three times by the time they were 17 years old.
  • Compared with those who experienced a medium-quality neighborhood, long-term residence in a disadvantaged neighborhood reduced a black child’s chance of graduating from high school by about 65%, and a non-black child’s graduation chances by about 40%.
  • Sustained residence in a disadvantaged neighborhood — versus a high-quality neighborhood — reduced a black child’s chance of graduating from high school by about 90%, and a non-black child’s graduation chances by about 70%.

The authors conclude that “the consequences of long-term exposure to disadvantaged neighborhoods documented in this study suggest that neighborhood effects research is essential to understanding the reproduction of poverty. While the present study does not speak to the efficacy of specific policy interventions … it seems likely that a lasting commitment to neighborhood improvement and income desegregation would be necessary to resolve the problems identified here.”

Tags: African-American, poverty, inequality, race

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