Housing costs affect children’s cognitive abilities

Housing costs affect children’s cognitive abilities

(Md.) According to new research from Johns Hopkins University, the percentage of income a family spends in housing costs affects their children’s reading and math ability.

Families that spent a significant amount of their income on housing spent less money on things including books, computers and educational outings needed for a child’s healthy development, researchers found. And those that didn’t invest enough in housing often ended up in poor-quality homes in distressed neighborhoods, which can also impact children negatively.

“Families spending about 30 percent of their income on housing had children with the best cognitive outcomes,” Sandra J. Newman, a Johns Hopkins professor of policy studies and director of the university’s Center on Housing, Neighborhoods and Communities, said in a statement. “It’s worse when you pay too little and worse when you pay too much.”

Given the turbulent housing market, which in the past decade has fluctuated between severely depressed and booming, families have faced all types of obstacles which affect their housing costs -- unemployment, mortgage availability, high interest rates, etc. Any of these factors may determine how much a family must spend on housing.

Researchers took data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics and its Child Development Supplements as well as data from the 2004-2009 Consumer Expenditure Surveys, and focused on families with incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline.

The findings are highlighted in two new journal articles, “Housing affordability and investments in children,” published in the Journal of Housing Economics, and “Housing affordability and child well-being,” published in Housing Policy Debate.

What they found was that families spending over 50 percent of their income on housing were unable to invest in tools to “optimize their children’s brainpower,” and those which spent less than 20 percent of their income on housing were met with the spillover effects of living in low-income areas.

“The markedly poorer performance of children in families with extremely low housing cost burdens undercuts the housing policy assumption that a lower housing cost burden is always best,” Newman said.

Newman and fellow researcher C. Scott Holupka noted that families who obtained affordable housing, and spent approximately 30 percent of their income on it, did tend to spend more money on educational tools or outings for their children.

Families who went from spending more than half of their income on housing to the recommended amount invested an average of $98 more on their children, and families who increased their spending from 10 to 30 percent spent about $170 more on child enrichment, researchers found.

“People are making trade-offs,” Holupka said in a statement, “and those trade-offs have implications for their children.”

Researchers also explored the effects of affordable housing on the physical health and emotional wellbeing of children living in poverty, but how much a family spent on housing had no effect in those categories.

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