The Connection Between Housing and Achievement

Recently, I received an email from a reader who works for the Office of Community Development and Housing at the RI Housing Resources Commission. He was moved by the story of Fred that I shared, and he reminded me of the critical connection between stable communities and strong schools. This fall, one of the foci of the MacArthur Foundation’s How Housing Matters Conference in Washington, DC will be the impact of housing on education. There is a great deal of research that shows how dramatically a family’s housing situation can impact their children’s performance in school.

Low-income families tend to move much more frequently than their middle and upper income peers. In fact, approximately 20% of families are “hyper-mobile,” moving more than six times in six years. A study conducted in 2011 examined the relationship between housing stability and child outcomes. Children who move frequently often exhibit greater behavior problems in childhood, more risk-taking behavior in adolescence, and lower academic achievement overall. One study even found that higher mobility is negatively correlated with high school completion; the more a child moves, the less likely he is to finish high school. Why are frequent moves more common in low-income families? Reasons are myriad, but they include loss of employment, lack of savings/safety net, changes in household composition, the need to be closer to a parent’s job, or the desire to move to a better school district or safer neighborhood.

This summer, Johns Hopkins University released a report that establishes a connection between affordable housing and children’s intellectual ability. In low-income families that spent either more than 50% or less than 20% of their income on housing, children’s reading and math ability suffered. Families that spent more of their money on housing spent less on things such as books, computers, and outings that could promote their children’s cognitive development. Families spending less than 20% of their income on housing were often living in distressed neighborhoods or residences that were unsafe for their children. The low-income children who performed the best academically were those whose families spent about 30% of their income on housing; those families also spent, on average, about $98 more on enrichment activities for their children. Researcher C. Scott Halupka stated, “People are making trade-offs, and those trade-offs have implications for their children.”

A large percentage of our population is having trouble paying their housing bills, both nationally and statewide. There are 1.75 million homeless people in the United States, over 4800 in Rhode Island. Take a look at this infographic on renters in Rhode Island produced last month by HousingWorksRI; the majority of our renters, in every age category, are spending more than 30% of their income on rent – and one-fifth to over one-third of them are spending over 50% of their income on rent. And it’s not just renters who are feeling the pinch – Rhode Island is first in New England and sixth in the nation in the percentage of “underwater” mortgages. Rhode Island’s Report Card on Child Homelessness is pretty good – we rank 4th out of 50 states. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act allows for all homeless RI students to enroll in school, as well as stay in their current schools (with transportation provided). But, as Stephen Fortunato pointed out in an OpEd in the Projo on July 11, 2014, RI’s homeless people currently have no right to secure shelter for themselves or their children. In addition, over 41,000 children (20%) live below the federal poverty level in our state. We need to help all poor families, not just those who are homeless. The more we can do to help parents provide a stable environment for their children, the better our schools will be able to serve our students and the more our children will be able to achieve.

This article was originally published at GoLocalProv.

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