Moving Matters: Residential Mobility, Neighborhoods, and Family in the Lives of Poor Adolescents
When is moving beneficial to youth development? When is it detrimental? These are the questions that inspired Stefanie DeLuca’s William T. Grant Scholars project. In search of answers, she drew on three quantitative datasets that followed low-income youth across the country. She also conducted more in-depth fieldwork and repeated interviews with poor mothers and their children in Mobile, Alabama—focusing on their decisions about mobility, housing, schooling, and family dynamics. She was particularly interested in whether and how mothers used moving as a strategy for fostering better lives for their children, and when moving between households was harmful for them. Her final dataset includes neighborhoods in New York, Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Mobile. So far, Dr. DeLuca has compiled a fascinating set of findings that challenge both established bodies of research and conventional wisdom.
In addition to families moving between neighborhoods, Dr. DeLuca and her team measured “within-family” mobility, meaning time that children spend away from the head of the household. This can happen because children are moved to another home or caregivers change residences without their children. The reasons for these familial separations vary greatly. They can indicate a voluntary separation so that a child can attend a different school or a caregiver can be closer to work, or they occur after parental incarceration or drug rehabilitation. Analyses indicate that it is more common for high-poverty youth to experience multiple instabilities in family, school, and neighborhood than for them to experience no instabilities or to experience only one type. For example, half the youth studied in Baltimore were separated from the head of their households at least twice during the four to seven years DeLuca followed them. One-fifth of them experienced both a residential and school change.
DeLuca’s team also conducted quantitative analyses with national data on adolescents, using the National Longitudinal Study of Youth 1997. While they found that mobility does not necessarily cause adolescent delinquency (in fact, both are likely caused by the same factors), they found that mobility can contribute to high school dropout. Surprisingly, when conducting similar analyses with the high-poverty Baltimore sample, she found that family, school, and residential instabilities do not affect substance use, test scores, or other risky behaviors. These inconsistencies may be linked to the fact that these families have been living in deep poverty for so long that these instabilities might not make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things (or that the measures do not capture the nuance that she found in the qualitative work). Families and youth inevitably learn to cope with their environments through strategies for family management and resource allocation. For example,, instability can sometimes lead to positive changes, such as a safer neighborhood or better school or escaping an abusive relative. Interviews and observations show that children must adapt to changing residences as they shift between households several times a week for the purposes of school, caregivers’ schedules and social services.
DeLuca’s evidence from Mobile and Baltimore also makes the case that poor families rarely choose their social contexts, and the dynamics of life in poverty severely limit their options and abilities to choose. More than 70 percent of the families she studied reported that they either moved or stayed where they were because they did not have a choice. Poor housing quality, unpredictable landlord decisions, housing policies and neighborhood violence often contributed to these reactive moves. DeLuca also found that part of the reason poor families churn between disadvantaged neighborhoods is that they often perceive that all neighborhoods are dangerous and all schools are the same; thus, there are few options.
DeLuca’s interviews revealed a strong theme of self-reliance. In short, families often believed that “it’s not where you live, it’s how you live.” For instance, families often expressed the sentiment that school quality is less relevant than a child’s efforts, and had confidence in their ability to navigate dangerous neighborhoods.. Furthermore, families in new neighborhoods often kept to themselves, leading to significant social isolation from neighbors and peers for their children—especially boys, who seem to have to choose between staying to themselves or getting caught up in “the game.”
More select readings follow:
DeLuca, Stefanie, Greg Duncan, Ruby Mendenhall, and Micere Keels. 2012. “The Notable and the Null: Using Mixed Methods to Understand the Diverse Impacts of Residential Mobility Programs.” Chapter 9 in Maarten Van Ham, David Manley, Nick Bailey, Ludi Simpson, and Duncan Maclennan (Eds.), Neighborhood Effects Research: New Perspectices. Dordrecht: Springer. 195–223.
DeLuca, Stefanie, Philip Garboden and Peter Rosenblatt. (2013) “Segregating Shelter: How Housing Policies Shape the Residential Locations of Low-Income Minority Families.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 647:268–299.
DeLuca, Stefanie. 2012. “What is the Role of Housing Policy? Considering Choice and Social Science Evidence.” Journal of Urban Affairs. 34:21–28.
Rosenblatt, Peter and Stefanie DeLuca. 2012. “We Don’t Live Outside, We Live in Here: Neighborhoods and Residential Mobility Decisions Among Low-income Families.” City and Community 11:254-284.