A few weeks ago we looked at children's test scores at Key Stage 2 (age 11 years) for the cohort of pupils who started school in 2001/2002 using data from the National Pupil Database. This showed that children living in deprived areas (where more than 20 percent of the working-age population receive benefits/welfare) had lower levels of attainment than children in non-deprived areas. The question as to why families in deprived areas have on average worse outcomes than families in better-off areas has been debated widely but it has proved impossible to answer conclusively. Perhaps, as Eric Pickles argued in the Independent on Sunday, society should be more ready to blame problem families for their own difficulties but it is largely a matter of opinion and in the following we will look at why.
In statistics designed experiments are often thought of as providing the only reliable evidence about causation. In a clinical trial the researcher assigns individuals at random to either a drug treatment or a placebo and then asks if receipt of the drug is associated with an improvement in an outcome B which is significantly greater than the improvement for the placebo. In the social sciences, in contrast, we mainly use survey or interview data that involves observing but not changing people's lives and in consequence most studies start from a known outcome B and search backwards to try to find the cause A. In the case of neighbourhoods and children’s outcomes, if we find that parenting explains the association between living in a deprived area and children's lower test scores does this mean that poor people in deprived areas find it tough to bring-up families because of poverty or does it mean that their parents are feckless individuals? People tend to have strong views on questions like that but the data we have is not really strong enough to support either viewpoint.
In order to illustrate just how difficult it is to distinguish different explanations for problem families let’s quickly look at some differences in family characteristics and parenting in the most deprived and most affluent decile of areas in England. This data comes from the Millennium Cohort Study, a large study of around 18,000 children who were born in 2000 and 2001 run by the Institute of Education (www.cls.ioe.ac.uk/). The data I am using comes from an interview with the child's mother when the child was age 3 years. The figure below contrasts the demographic and economic characteristics of families in the most affluent and most deprived decile of areas in England.
The figure shows that, in comparison to a child living in a neighbourhood in the most affluent decile of areas in England, a child living in a neighbourhood in the most deprived decile of areas is around ten times more likely to have a mother who first had a child as a teenager, to live in a family which has an income less than 60% of the median household income, to live in social housing or to live in crowded housing conditions and around five times more likely to live in a family receiving state benefits or only have a single-parent. Families living in the poorest and most affluent areas clearly have very different characteristics.
The next figure shows how the parenting of mothers in the study varies between the two types of area. This shows that in comparison to children living in affluent areas children in families in deprived areas are somewhere around three to four times less likely to have regular bedtimes, to have been given toys to play with during the interview, to have been encouraged by the mother during the interview and more likely to live in a home that was visibly unclean and to be smacked at least weekly.
There are methods for trying to partition variation in children’s outcomes, in our case how well they did on cognitive tests, into differences due to different factors but when the explanatory factors are emeshed in intimate ways, as they are in the case of neighbourhood and family poverty and parenting, it is unwise to place much confidence in the results. Researchers know this and it is wise to be sceptical of studies which attribute improved child outcomes to particular causes. In the US, however, several studies have randomly assigned families applying for public housing to different types of neighbourhood. The best known is Moving to Opportunity and the evaluation of the study has shown that moving out of deprived areas did improve mother’s mental health and the quality of parenting.
We haven’t considered encouraging residential mobility as part of the package of policies aimed at poor families in the UK and in an ideal world it might be better to tackle root causes. But if there are a relatively small number of problem families and for a small number of them living in deprived areas is helping to pass-on patterns of behaviour to their children, why not consider moving them to somewhere a little nicer?