June 4, 2002
Bad neighbourhoods don't ruin children: study
Youths did as well as those from middle-class areasAnne Marie Owens
Young people raised in the poorest neighbourhoods of Canada's biggest city fare about the same as those from suburban, middle-class neighbourhoods in terms of income and education, a new federal study has found.
The findings completely upend the notion that taking poor children and moving them into better neighbourhoods will enhance their performance in school and the job market.
"Neighbourhood quality does not make much difference to a youth's chances for labour-market success," concludes the Statistics Canada study, released yesterday.
The long-range study tracked young people from low-income families in Toronto over a 12-year period and examined their eventual adult earnings, income, social assistance rates and educational attainment.
Researchers found there was almost no difference in any of these aspects between the group of young people who grew up in the traditional, densely packed, low-income housing projects in the city's centre, and those who grew up in the middle-income, mostly suburban neighbourhoods.
The city's public-housing policy means that low-income families are randomly assigned to live in different styles of accommodation.
The low-income neighbourhoods used in the study were seven downtown housing projects with large concentrations of people living below the poverty line. In these neighbourhoods, almost all residents rent and almost half of them live with a family income of less than about $35,000.
The middle-income neighbourhoods identified in the study were located mostly in the suburbs of Toronto, in communities where the average household income was more than twice what it was in the large downtown housing projects.
In these neighbourhoods, almost half of the residents own their homes and less than a quarter have low family incomes.
"Despite significant contrast in neighbourhood quality," the study surprisingly found that there was a near-zero effect on earnings, income and education.
The average years of schooling for those from low-income neighbourhoods was 12.3 years, compared to 12.2 years for those in middle-income neighbourhoods.
Average incomes for youths tracked from age 27 to 35 was $20,950 for those from low-income neighbourhoods and $21,461 for those from middle-income neighbourhoods.
Those average incomes are about 25% lower than the national average for that age group, which means that these youths were at the lower end of the earning spectrum regardless of whether they grew up in inner-city poor neighbourhoods or suburban middle-class neighbourhoods.
Miles Corak, a Statistics Canada spokesman, said the findings are contrary: "It seems that when it comes to these labour-market outcomes, it's not the neighbourhood that matters, it's what's happening in the family that matters more.
"It certainly raises the question of whether for people in more difficult circumstances, does it really matter where they live? Maybe the whole focus shouldn't be on the neighbourhood you grow up in, so much as all sorts of other factors."
Neighbourhood quality did have an impact on crime and safety, an aspect mentioned but not studied in the report.
Housing experts say the findings show that the impact of living in public housing in Canada is nowhere near as dramatic as in the United States.
"We tend to have an American image of what public housing is and the differences there are, and this is showing that that image is wrong when it comes to Canada," said David Hulchanski, director of the Centre for Urban and Community Studies at the University of Toronto.
He says the study also undercuts the impact of environmental determinism, which holds that where someone lives dramatically influences the outcome of their life:
"It plays a role, but in Canada, where you have basically high-quality, larger downtown communities and low-density smaller ones, it makes little difference."
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