One of my favorite things to do is explore cities on foot. Of course, I like some cities more than others—New York City being among my favorites. Until recently, I hadn’t quite articulated what makes a city attractive and appealing to me. Then I came across a video by the School of Life, an organization based out of London. According to the video, some of the things people tend to enjoy about cities include order and variety in physical structures, visible life such as street-level businesses with large windows, and a sense of mystery about places to discover.
These are things that adults might think about when exploring or moving to a new neighborhood, but what about children? What do they need and how does their housing and neighborhood affect their health and wellbeing? In the Future of Children, Ingrid Gould Ellen and Sherry Glied summarize what we know from research. One thing is clear—poor children tend to live in more disadvantaged environments.
For instance, poor children are more likely to live in inadequate housing. The U.S. Census Bureau considers a unit inadequate for reasons such as not having hot and cold running water, no bathtub or shower, no flushing toilet, and having exposed wiring. Recent estimates indicate that 11% of poor households with children and 5.9% of all households with children were physically inadequate, respectively. Thankfully, these figures have been cut in half since the 1970s. Nevertheless, children living in these circumstances probably experience greater emotional and behavioral problems and may perform worse in school.
The physical condition of children’s neighborhoods and what happens in them is also important. For example, when violent crime occurs close to where a child lives, that child is likely to perform poorer on cognitive tests within the next week. Car pollution is associated with asthma and even premature birth. As for the physical condition of things, poorly maintained playgrounds, crumbling sidewalks, and littered glass may result in physical injury or less outdoor activity. We should keep in mind that injuries and homicide are among the leading causes of death among children.
What can we do to make children’s homes and neighborhoods healthier and safer?
Speed bumps and safe walking/biking paths can reduce rates of child pedestrian injuries.
Installing window bars on apartment buildings can reduce fall-related deaths among children.
Introducing the E-ZPass at toll booths can reduce pollution in nearby residential areas. This strategy has been shown to reduce the incidence of preterm births in these neighborhoods.
There are many things we can do to make the homes and neighborhoods of children safe and healthy. However, Ellen and Glied caution that improvements to housing and neighborhoods can increase costs, thereby driving out low-income families. While subsidies can offset these costs for some families, the authors suggest that policymakers experiment with offering subsides to more families while reducing the size of the subsidy available per family. To learn more, see the Future of Children issue, “Policies to Promote Child Health.”