FRIDAY, Dec. 21 (HealthDay News) -- Black children living in disadvantaged neighborhoods fall behind the equivalent of one year or more of schooling simply because of where they live.
"[The study] does speak to the power of external resources," said Richard Gilman, coordinator of psychology and special education in the division of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cincinnati Children's Hospital in Ohio. "It focuses on race as a characteristic, but it's not necessarily race. It's what's going on in families and external to families. . . the characteristics [of neighborhoods they identify] are going to be disproportional to African-American families because of the state of affairs for those families. They are the type of families living primarily in the inner cities."
Gilman was not involved with the study, which is published in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A person's cognitive ability, which is mainly shaped early in life, can predict how well he or she will do later in life in terms of education, employment, whether or not they enter the criminal justice system and health.
But experts differ in whether genetics or environment are the primary shapers. And the role of the neighborhood has not been extensively studied.
For this study, sociologists at Harvard University analyzed Chicago census tract data from 1990 and 2000 and identified six neighborhood characteristics which, together, formed "concentrated disadvantage" and were linked to the cognitive abilities of children.
The six characteristics were: welfare receipt, poverty, unemployment, female-headed households, racial composition and density of children.
More than 2,000 urban Chicago children aged 6 to 12 were assessed for verbal ability and other characteristics.
The children, with their caretakers, were followed wherever they moved in the United States for seven years.
The researchers took into account the impact of moving into and out of areas of disadvantage. About 17 percent of black children not living in disadvantage moved to a disadvantaged neighborhood between 1995 and 2002, while 42 percent of black children in disadvantaged neighborhoods in 1995 moved to a non-disadvantaged neighborhood during those years.
Children who lived in a severely disadvantaged neighborhood halfway through the follow-up period were almost all black, and they fell behind their otherwise identical peers by about four points on an IQ test. This translates into about one year of schooling.
Almost one-third of black children lived at some point in "concentrated disadvantaged" neighborhoods compared to almost no white or Latino children.
The findings tilt the nature-versus-nurture debate toward the latter factor.
"The study has implications for interventions, because they've identified the risk factors, it appears, that contribute to negative outcomes," Gilman said. "We don't have a lot of intervention research. It would seem that if you began to design intervention studies that target these specific risk factors, hopefully, you will begin to see an increase in verbal scores, particularly among African-Americans."
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SOURCES: Richard Gilman, Ph.D., coordinator, psychology and special education, division of developmental and behavioral pediatrics, Cincinnati Children's Hospital, Ohio; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences