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How Evictions Can Affect Children’s Cognitive Development

Childhood eviction and cognitive development: Developmental timing-specific associations in an urban birth cohort
Gabriel L. Schwartz, Kathryn M. Leifheit, Jarvis T. Chen, Mariana C. Arcaya, Lisa F. Berkman
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Although any sort of housing instability can be detrimental to a child’s development, evictions can particularly harm a child’s well-being. Evictions can force families to move to lower-quality housing in less-resourced neighborhoods, increase risks of food insecurity given strains on finances, and make it harder to find safe, affordable housing in the future given the stigma of a household eviction record.

This study examines how evictions at different stages in childhood affected outcomes in four different cognitive assessments. The authors analyzed data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS), which involved 4,898 infants born from 1998 to 2000 across 20 large US cities. The FFCWS included follow-up interviews with the children and their families at ages 1, 3, 5, 9, and 15, along with four cognitive skills assessments at age 9 that measured executive function, mathematical reasoning, written language skills, and vocabulary skills. Additional questions were included in the interviews with parents, including whether they had been evicted in the 12 months preceding the check-in at each age.

To estimate the effects an eviction may have had on a child’s cognitive development, the authors created three sample groups that included children whose families were renters and had experienced an eviction in the previous 12 months to ages 1 (infancy), 3 and 5 (early childhood), and 9 (middle childhood). They then compared the cognitive assessment results from age 9 of each sample group with children who did not experience an eviction. They compared results using a multiple linear regression for each of the four cognitive assessments, adjusting the weighting of each regression to account for potential selection bias as well as controlling for time-invariant confounding variables. These included individual- (e.g., being born preterm), family- (e.g., parental education and income), and neighborhood- (neighborhood poverty) level factors. They also included fixed effects for cities, to account for city-level factors such as differing rates of evictions and investments in local public education systems. In sensitivity analyses, the authors further controlled for preeviction performance on cognitive assessments, as some of these assessments were also conducted at earlier ages.

The authors found that an eviction’s effect on cognitive development varied depending on the timing of the eviction.

Key findings
  • Children whose families had experienced an eviction in middle childhood had significantly lower scores across all four cognitive assessments compared with similar children whose families did not experience an eviction. The difference in scores was equivalent to as much as a full year of schooling.
  • Children whose families experienced an eviction in infancy had lower scores on three out of the four cognitive assessments. While the difference in scores were large in magnitude, these lower scores were not statistically significantly different from those students from families who had not experienced an eviction.
  • Differences in scores for all four tests between children whose families had experienced an eviction in early childhood and those who had not experienced an eviction were minimal and statistically insignificant.
Policy implications
  • Evictions in infancy and middle childhood can affect children’s cognitive skill development. Schools should work to identify students who experience evictions and provide additional support to ensure their developmental needs are being met, which may require additional funding.
  • Preventing evictions may be a less expensive and more cost-effective way to increase academic outcomes, especially among students from families with low incomes or student of color who face higher risk of evictions because of financial pressures, racist social stigmas, or other systemic barriers.