Low-income kids in high-cost areas a recipe for academic struggle: study

Aug. 22, 2012, 3:50 p.m.

Living in an area with a high cost of living can mean academic struggle for low-income students. (Charles Pieters/Flickr Creative Commons)

Poor kids living in low-cost areas tend to do better academically than poor kids living in high-cost areas.

That's the finding of a new study appearing in Child Development.

Researchers looked at more than 17,500 kids who started kindergarten in 1998 at more than 2,000 schools across the nation to see how a child's academic performance and social-emotional development was affected by a family's financial resources, parenting practices and investment, and school resources.

"I found that for poor children and low-income children, living in a high-cost area was associated with lower levels of school achievement," said Nina Chien, the study's lead author and a research scientist at Washington, D.C.-based Child Trends. Chien told OnCentral the study defined poor children as those living below the federal poverty level ($23,050 for a family of four) while low-income kids were those living below three-times that.

In her study, she considered the entire Los Angeles and Long Beach area to be high-cost, despite the fact that it contains communities as profoundly different as, for example, Beverly Hills and South Los Angeles. "Even though it's a broad area, it's still meaningful," she said, explaining the cost of living in Los Angeles will be higher than many other areas, no matter which part you're talking about.

As such, she also noted that "high-cost" and "low-cost" areas are not synonymous with rich and poor areas, respectively.

Chien pointed out that many studies have shown that lower income levels are related to lower levels of academic achievement, but hers was the first to examine the cost of living.

"This study found that even when you already have accounted for the effects of income, the cost of living still has an effect above and beyond [that]," she said.

Chien sees an area's cost of living "as moderating what income ends up meaning or buying." In her study, she found that income was mostly eaten up by rent and child care. And after that, with expenses so high in certain areas, there's not much money left over for necessities like food – let alone "luxuries."

"For poor children in particular, there's also a relationship between the cost of living and parent investment," she said. "So for kids living in higher-cost areas, their parents are less able to make these investments for their children." "These investments" include enrolling kids in extra-curricular activities, spending time being involved at their children's schools and providing books in the home and access to a computer.

As far as a solution, Chien suggested that the government provide more in-kind assistance, for housing and child-care in particular. She also pointed out that income eligibility cutoffs for certain government assistance programs are uniform nationwide, and said the government ought to consider making them "more flexible and more reflective of the fact that some families live in higher-cost areas."

For a high-cost area, median incomes in South Los Angeles are pretty low. According to the Los Angeles Times' Mapping L.A. project, University Park's median income is $18,533 per household; Vermont Knolls, $27,730; Florence, $29,447; South Park, $29,518.

As it stands, location seems to stack a lot of odds against a lot of kids.

"It does feel like there's just more challenges faced by low-income children who also live in a high-cost area," said Chien.

Photo by Charles Pieters via Flickr Creative Commons.

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