Home  |   Subscribe  |   Resources  |   Reprints  |   Writers' Guidelines


Affordable Housing Linked to Children’s Intellectual Ability

It’s long been accepted, with little science to back it up, that people should spend roughly one-third of their income on housing. As it turns out, that may be about how much a low-income family should spend to optimize children’s brainpower.

Johns Hopkins University researchers have explored the effects of affordable housing on the cognitive development, physical health, and emotional well-being of children living in poverty. How much a family spends on housing has no impact on a child’s physical or social health, they found, but when it came to cognitive ability, it is a game changer.

When a family spent more than one-half of its income on housing, its children’s reading and math scores tended to suffer, says Sandra J. Newman, PhD, a Johns Hopkins professor of policy studies, working with researcher C. Scott Holupka. Children’s test scores also took a hit when families spent less than 20% of income on housing.

“Families spending about 30% of their income on housing had children with the best cognitive outcomes,” says Newman, who is also the director of the university’s Center on Housing, Neighborhoods and Communities. “It’s worse when you pay too little and worse when you pay too much.”

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.

More than 88% of renters with the lowest incomes spent more than 30% of their income on rent, according to the 2009 American Community Survey. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s latest report on affordable housing states household incomes must be at least 105% of the area median for a family to find decent, affordable housing units.

Families in the study that spent most of their money on housing spent less on things like books, computers, and educational outings needed for healthy child development, Newman and Holupka found. Families that didn’t invest enough in housing likely ended up in the sort of distressed neighborhoods and inadequate dwellings that can also take a toll on children.

“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 says. “Rather than finding a bargain in a good neighborhood, they’re living in low-quality housing with spillover effects on their children’s development.”

Newman and Holupka found families that had obtained truly affordable housing, spending roughly 30% of their income on it, did indeed spend more money on enrichment for their kids.

When a family moved from spending more than one-half of its income on housing to the 30% ideal, it invested an average of $98 more on the children, the researchers found. Not a lot of money, but enough to make a difference. Even when families increased the amount spent on housing — from spending 10%of their income to 30% — they spent about $170 more on child enrichment.

“People are making trade-offs,” Holupka says, “and those trade-offs have implications for their children.”

— Source: Johns Hopkins University