Expert Commentary

How girls and boys adjust to leaving risky neighborhoods

2011 study in the American Journal of Sociology on gender differences and outcomes of housing relocations.

Studies have shown that young people growing up in poorer neighborhoods experience multiple forms of deprivation, including resource-poor schools, elevated levels of crime and violence, and restricted labor markets. In 1994 a federal program called “Moving to Opportunity” (MTO) used vouchers to help a group of randomly assigned families move from “highly distressed” public housing projects to neighborhoods with less poverty.

A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Sociology, “Moving Teenagers Out of High-Risk Neighborhoods: How Girls Fare Better Than Boys,” analyzed data from the MTO program and conducted in-depth interviews with a sample of 86 teens in Baltimore and Chicago. Overall, adolescent girls benefited more from the program than boys, with reduced rates of substance abuse and risky behavior. The boys who were moved, the authors note, “did no better in terms of delinquency and risk behavior and, on some measures, performed even worse” than a control group of boys who did not move.

The study, from researchers at St. Joseph University, Harvard University, UC-Irvine, and the Congressional Budget Office, develops several explanations for these gender differences:

  • Boys may require an array of survival strategies and concrete skills to navigate their neighborhoods. The opportunity to develop these tools may be lost when boys are removed from high-poverty environments in childhood.
  • Boys have a higher inclination than girls to import patterns from their original neighborhoods to their new settings, resulting in marginalization and increased delinquency and arrest rates.
  • The daily routines of girls do not appear to violate social norms in high- or low-poverty neighborhoods, avoiding the negative reactions from neighbors or police that boys experienced.
  • Moves may have resulted in less proximity to father figures for the adolescents involved. This lack of proximity to a father figure appeared to have more detrimental effects on boys than girls.

The authors conclude that, regardless of similar demographic characteristics, boys and girls “live in different social worlds,” and as such interventions such as MTO likely have quite different potential outcomes dependent on gender.

Tags: crime, poverty, youth, children

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