Research shows that early exposure to violence can lead to problems such as substance abuse and delinquency. However, studies have not always controlled for factors that could lead to the same results, such as poverty and low education levels. Whether or not exposure to violence is truly the chief factor explaining negative cognitive and behavioral outcomes for young people in urban settings has remained an area in need of further inquiry.
A 2009 paper from Brown University for the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Neighborhood Violence and Urban Youth,” seeks to address this research gap by analyzing data from a variety of sources and attempting to isolate variables that govern outcomes.
The paper’s findings include:
Once underlying factors such as poverty rates and education are controlled for, violence has less of an effect on children’s cognitive test scores and causes fewer behavior problems such as aggression and delinquency. This implies that underlying disadvantages explain “some of the negative outcomes observed, but not all.”
Still, when the researchers controlled for underlying differences across families, the data show an increase in the effects of violence and their link to internalizing behavior problems.
In addition, children in such settings often associate with violent peers, and “having violent peers (knowing a gang member) is negatively correlated with cognitive test scores.”
The researchers conclude that the findings have implications for public policy intended to reduce neighborhood violence: for example, enhanced law enforcement “may have limited impact on youth outcomes,” while housing subsidies that enable low-income families to move to less disadvantaged neighborhoods may be more effective.