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Affordable Housing Leads to Smarter Kids

A new study finds a link between how much families spend on housing and children's intellectual ability.

In the world of human services, everything is linked, and one of the main axles around which things connect and spin is stable, affordable housing. If ever there was any doubt about housing's importance, particularly where it relates to the healthy development of kids, a new study erases it.

Looking at how much families spend on housing and then comparing that to a child's intellectual achievement, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that though how much a family spent "had no affect on a child's physical or social health, when it came to cognitive ability, it was a game changer."

In families that spent more than half their household income on housing, kids' reading and math abilities suffered, according to the study. At the same time, children in families that spent less than 20 percent of their income on housing also suffered cognitively. "It's worse when you pay too little and worse when you pay too much," says study author Sandra J. Newman, a Johns Hopkins professor of policy studies and director of the university's Center on Housing, Neighborhoods and Communities.

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Newman attributes this finding to the fact that families that spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing spend less on things like books, computers and educational outings. Meanwhile, families that don't invest enough in housing are likely living in rougher, probably more chaotic and challenging neighborhoods, which is not at all conducive to building basic brainpower. "The markedly poor performance of children in families with extremely low housing cost burdens undercuts the housing policy assumption that a lower housing burden is always best," says Newman. "Rather than finding a bargain in a good neighborhood, they're living in low-quality housing with spillover effects on their children's development."

In other words, the sweet spot is right in the 30 percent range, says Newman. "Those families were spending significantly more on educational enrichment." They invested an average of almost $100 or more on their children, which she admits isn't a lot of money but is apparently enough to make a difference.

The report -- which gauged kids' abilities not by standardized academic or IQ tests but by basic cognitive skill tests -- focused on families with incomes at or below 200 percent of the poverty level.

None of its findings, of course, ought to be surprising to anyone: In order to learn, kids need nutritional food, a stable home environment, a decent night's sleep and an adequate cash flow for school supplies. Given that, the study's assertion that what families spend on housing had "no effect on a child's physical or social health" seems misguided. Maybe not directly, but as stated at the beginning, everything in the human services world is connected to everything else.

A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.
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