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Parents and communities

Jeehee Han, Amy Ellen Schwartz.

Is public housing bad for children? Critics charge that public housing projects concentrate poverty and create neighborhoods with limited opportunities, including low-quality schools. However, whether the net effect is positive or negative is theoretically ambiguous and likely to depend on the characteristics of the neighborhood and schools compared to origin neighborhoods. In this paper, we draw on detailed individual-level longitudinal data on students moving into New York City public housing and examine their academic outcomes over time. Exploiting plausibly random variation in the precise timing of entry into public housing, we estimate credibly causal effects of public housing using both difference-in-differences and event study designs. We find credibly causal evidence of positive effects of moving into public housing on student test scores, with larger effects over time. Stalled academic performance in the first year of entry may reflect, in part, disruptive effects of residential and school moves. Neighborhood matters: effects are larger for students moving out of low-income neighborhoods or into higher-income neighborhoods, and these students move to schools with higher average test scores and lower shares of economically disadvantaged peers. We also find some evidence of improved attendance outcomes and reduction in incidence of childhood obesity for boys following public housing residency. Our study results refute the popular belief that public housing is bad for kids and probe the circumstances under which public housing may work to improve academic outcomes for low-income students.

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S. Michael Gaddis, Joseph Murphy.

Scholars debate whether cultural capital reproduces existing inequalities or provides a path to upward mobility. Most studies, however, focus only on cross-sectional associations and are unclear about how disadvantaged adolescents can increase their amounts of cultural capital. Adolescents may be able to increase cultural capital through ties to adults with high educational attainment. We investigate this topic using experimental longitudinal data on mentoring relationships. We find that mentors with a college degree or greater have positive effects on cultural capital, but primarily for adolescents with a parent with some college or greater. Thus, cultural capital may not be an engine of social mobility if adolescents from low-SES households cannot obtain or increase their cultural capital.

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Lindsey Rose Bullinger, Maithreyi Gopalan, Caitlin Lombardi.

Empirical evidence demonstrates that publicly funded adult health insurance through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has had positive effects on low-income adults. We examine whether the ACA’s Medicaid expansions influenced child development and family functioning in low-income households. We use a difference-in-differences framework that exploits cross-state policy variation, and focus on children in low-income families from a nationally representative, longitudinal sample followed from kindergarten to fifth grade. The ACA Medicaid expansions improved children’s reading test scores by approximately 2 percent (0.04 SD). Potential mechanisms for these effects within families are more time spent reading at home, less parental help with homework, and eating dinner together. We find no effects for children’s math test scores or socioemotional skills.

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Meira Levinson, Alan C. Geller, Joseph G. Allen.

At least 25 million K-12 students in the U.S.—disproportionately children of color from low-income families—have been physically out of school for a full year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These children are at risk of significant academic, social, mental, and physical harm now and in the long-term. We must determine how to help all students gain access to safe, in-person schooling. In this interdisciplinary Viewpoint, we review the literature about the association between school reopening and COVID-19 transmission rates, and about the political, social, and environmental conditions that shape families’ and teachers’ choices to return to in-person schooling. Even though schools can safely be opened with appropriate mitigation measures, we find four reasons for schooling hesitancy: high community transmission rates; the Trump administration’s politicization of school re-openings in Summer 2020; long-term histories of mutual mistrust and racialized disinvestment in urban districts; and rational calculation about vulnerability due to the social determinants of health that have led Black and Latinx parents disproportionately to keep their children at home and White families disproportionately to send their children to school. Given the deep interconnections between the social determinants of health and of learning, and between schooling hesitancy and community vulnerability, stark inequities in in-person schooling access and take-up are likely to persist. In addition to ramping up safe and speedy school reopening now, we must make a long-term commitment to supporting schools as both sites of and contributors to public health, especially in historically marginalized communities.

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Gregory Gilpin, Ezra Karger, Peter Nencka.

Local governments spend over 12 billion dollars annually funding the operation of 15,000 public libraries in the United States. This funding supports widespread library use: more than 50% of Americans visit public libraries each year. But despite extensive public investment in libraries, surprisingly little research quantifies the effects of public libraries on communities and children. We use data on the near-universe of U.S. public libraries to study the effects of capital spending shocks on library resources, patron usage, student achievement, and local housing prices. We use a dynamic difference-in-difference approach to show that library capital investment increases children’s attendance at library events by 18%, children’s checkouts of items by 21%, and total library visits by 21%. Increases in library use translate into improved children’s test scores in nearby school districts: a $1,000 or greater per-student capital investment in local public libraries increases reading test scores by 0.02 standard deviations and has no effects on math test scores. Housing prices do not change after a sharp increase in public library capital investment, suggesting that residents internalize the increased cost and improved quality of their public libraries.

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Margot Jackson, Daniel Schneider.

Families and governments are the primary sources of investment in children, proving access to basic resources and other developmental opportunities.  Recent research identifies significant class gaps in parental investments that contribute to high levels of inequality by family income and education and, potentially, to inequality in children’s development.  State-level public investments in children and families have the potential to reduce class inequality in children’s developmental environments by affecting parents’ behavior.  Using newly assembled administrative data from 1998-2014, linked to household-level data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey, we examine how public sector investment in income support, health and education is associated with the private expenditures of low and high-SES parents on developmental items for children. Are class gaps in parental investments in children narrower in contexts of higher public investment for children and families?  We find that more generous public spending for children and families is associated with significantly narrower class gaps in private parental investments.  Moreover, we find that equalization is driven by bottom up increases in low-SES household spending for the progressive investments of income support and health, and by top down decreases in high-SES household spending for the universal investment of public education.

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Jessica Lasky-Fink, Carly D. Robinson, Hedy Chang, Todd Rogers.

Many states mandate districts or schools notify parents when students have missed multiple unexcused days of school. We report a  randomized experiment (N = 131,312) evaluating the impact of sending parents truancy notifications modified to target behavioral barriers that can hinder effective parental engagement. Modified truancy notifications that used simplified language, emphasized parental efficacy, and highlighted the negative incremental effects of missing school reduced absences by 0.07 days compared to the standard, legalistic, and punitively-worded notification—an estimated 40% improvement over the standard truancy notification. This work illustrates how behavioral insights and randomized experiments can be used to improve administrative communications in education.

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Diana Leyva, Christina Weiland, Anna Shapiro, Gloria Yeomans-Maldonado, Angela Febles.

Food routines play a special role in Latino families. Using a cluster randomized trial with 248 children (M age = 67 months) from 13 schools, this study investigated the impact of a four-week family program designed to capitalize on food routines in improving Latino kindergarteners’ outcomes in the U.S. There were moderate-to-large impacts on child vocabulary (especially food-related) at end-of-treatment and the five-month follow-up, and suggestive evidence of moderate impacts on approaches to learning (including approaches to learning math) and executive function at the five-month follow-up. There were no statistically significant impacts on children’s math or literacy skills. A strengths-based, culturally responsive family intervention that is integrated into Latino family life can improve critical skills needed to succeed in school.

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Appendix298.65 KB

Alex Eble, Maya Escueta.

Aspirations shape important future-oriented behaviors, including educational investment. Higher family aspirations for children predict better educational outcomes in multiple developing countries. Unfortunately, aspirations sometimes outstrip people's ability to pursue them. We study the relationship between family aspirations for children and later child educational outcomes in an extremely poor context. We observe caregivers' educational and career aspirations for thousands of rural Gambian children about to begin schooling. While higher aspirations predict subsequent educational investment and, three years later, better child performance on reading/math tests, these gains are small in terms of skills learned, and high-aspirations children remain far from achieving literacy/numeracy. In contrast, a bundled supply-side intervention generated large literacy/numeracy gains in these areas. Since unobserved correlates of aspirations and educational outcomes likely bias our estimates upwards, the true aspirations-learning relationship may be even smaller. We conclude higher aspirations alone are insufficient to achieve literacy/numeracy in this, and perhaps similar contexts.

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Umut Özek.

This study examines the effects of internal migration driven by severe natural disasters on host communities, and the mechanisms behind these effects, using the large influx of migrants into Florida public schools after Hurricane Maria. I find adverse effects of the influx in the first year on existing student test scores, disciplinary problems, and student mobility among high-performing students in middle and high school that also persist in the second year. I also find evidence that compensatory resource allocation within schools is an important factor driving the adverse effects of large, unexpected migrant flows on incumbent students in the short-run.

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