Neighborhood Risk and Protective Factors Shaping Child and Adolescent Behaviors
Informed by ecological systems theory, social disorganization theory and social capital theory, this study investigates the neighborhood contexts associated with running away, alcohol, tobacco and drug use, gang participation, aggressive behavior, and incarceration for a sample of low-income, Latino and African American children between the ages of 8 and 18 who resided in subsidized housing for a substantial period of time during their childhood. Specifically, we examine the extent to which such behaviors are statistically related to various conditions in the neighborhoods in which these children were raised. The purpose of this study is to (1) identify the threshold levels at which these neighborhood conditions become meaningful; and (2) estimate how these effects may vary according to the timing and duration of neighborhood exposure.
The data utilized in this paper come from the Denver Child Study, a large-scale, mixed-methods study of current and former residents of the Denver (CO) Housing Authority (DHA). Quasi-random assignment to neighborhoods offers a natural experiment for overcoming selection bias in the measurement of neighborhood effects. Data sources include (1) retrospective survey data from parent/caregivers; (2) administrative data from the U.S.Census Bureau and the Piton Foundation Neighborhood Factsdatabase; and (3) 84 in-depth interviews with caregivers and their young adult children. Data gathered from parent/caregivers were geocoded for each year of their child(ren)’s life thereby providing a rare opportunity to comprehensively examine neighborhood exposure. The study sample (N=1,349) is approximately half Latino and half African American, and between 9 and 13% of the children and youth in the study engaged in one or more of these behaviors.
Using multilevel logistic regression modeling, our findings suggest significant neighborhood effects on child and adolescent behaviors. The primary neighborhood risk factor was social disorder -- increasing the odds of running away from home, smoking and marijuana use. Greater neighborhood social disorder significantly affects the behaviors of both boys and girls; Latino and African American youth. The primary neighborhood protective factor was social capital. Increased levels of neighborhood social capital reduced the odds of childhood onset of drinking, but only for Latino youth. None of the neighborhood context variables predicted violent or aggressive behavior during childhood. Quantitative findings were supported by in-depth qualitative data from both caregivers and their young adult children.
Conclusions and Implications
Of interest, the only significant neighborhood indicators were based on parental reports of neighborhood conditions. It may be that these self-reports are more accurate depictions of local contexts and action spaces than the larger-area Census indicators. Neighborhood contexts did not predict onset of violent or aggressive behavior, once child, caregiver and household characteristics were controlled. This remained the same even when we included indicators of neighborhood violent crimes or total crimes. Study findings also are discussed in the context of expanding current intervention efforts for improving child and adolescet behavior from focusing only on the individual to focusing on changeable aspects of neighborhood.