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California Watch

Poor children living in higher-cost areas like the urban centers of California are more likely to struggle academically than their counterparts in lower-cost areas, according to research published earlier this week.

low income families and education
Students in Carpinteria, Calif. (Photo by Sarah Garland)

Based on a sample of more than 17,000 first-graders, the study by researchers from UCLA and the nonprofit Child Trends “provides important empirical evidence … that geographic variations in cost of living indeed matters for children’s well-being,” the article states.

Although there is a substantive body of research examining the relationship between family income and child development and educational outcomes, this is among the first studies to look at the effects of cost of living on academic achievement.

“The federal poverty threshold doesn’t factor in cost of living, and it doesn’t take into account that living in Los Angeles looks very different than rural Nebraska,” said Rashmita S. Mistry, an associate professor at UCLA’s Department of Education and co-author of the report.

The research shows that “it is not enough to simply look at the associations between family income, family life, and children’s academic outcomes; how income plays out in young children’s lives is conditioned by how much it costs for a family to cover its basic needs – and what is left over thereafter,” Mistry added by email.

These regional and local variations in cost of living are one reason that some organizations and policymakers support a more comprehensive calculation of the federal poverty level.

“The federal poverty level is an antiquated measure based entirely on the cost of food, first calculated in the 1960s, and it no longer accurately reflects the needs of modern families,” said Shawn McMahon, acting president and CEO of Wider Opportunities for Women, which launched a state- and county-specific economic security database earlier this year. “The federal poverty level is also not specific to place, so we have one federal poverty level for everyone across the country, no matter where you live, and we know costs vary greatly.”

From our partner

This story comes from our partner California Watch, which has the state’s largest investigative reporting team. You can follow this story at their site.

The 2012 federal poverty guideline is $23,050 for a family of four, a number calculated by tripling the cost of food for one year.

A 2012 UCLA policy brief [PDF] found that California legislators tend to rely on the federal poverty level even though it “does not measure local conditions, it is not based on current costs and it does not take into account all types of expenses faced by low-income families.”

This means that the “economic downturn coupled with the high cost of living in California has left many families and individuals economically vulnerable, but invisible to state policymakers” because they “do not have enough income to make ends meet and yet are not poor enough to be counted as poor,” the brief states.

There are some efforts to look at a broader range of measurements to gauge poverty by region and locality. Last year, the U.S. Census began publishing a supplemental poverty measure that includes expenses such as housing, utilities and clothing costs that are adjusted by geography. Additionally, a team of researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California and Stanford University are developing a more comprehensive measure of poverty for the state.

Failing to look at regional differences masks the full impact of a poor student’s economic circumstances on academic achievement, the new UCLA and Child Trends study says.

“This study demonstrates that cost of living influences family and child well-being in ways not captured by income alone and, if omitted, its influence would be lost as statistical noise,” the study states.

By analyzing cost of living, the study authors said they discovered new insights about how family resources affect children.

For poor children in particular, living in a higher-cost area is also associated with lower levels of what researchers called “parental investments” in their children related to time and money spent on extracurricular activities, school involvement, and books and a computer for the home. This is likely a result of having fewer financial resources left after paying for basic expenses, said study co-author Nina Chien of Child Trends, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center.

Governmental policies also can affect low-income students’ ability to attend high-performing schools, according to research published earlier this year by Jonathan Rothwell of the Brookings Institution. Zoning laws, in particular, can limit the development of affordable housing in affluent areas with high-performing schools, which means low-income children can be priced out of good schools.

In the county’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, it can cost 2.4 times more – or nearly an additional $11,000 – to live near a public school where students receive high standardized test scores than near a low-scoring public school, the study said.

In Fresno, for example, there was about a 28-point gap between the average test scores at low-income and more affluent elementary schools and about an $11,300 difference in housing costs between those school neighborhoods.

“For many families, it would be cheaper to send a child to a parochial or even more expensive private school than to move into the attendance zone of a high-scoring school,” the Rothwell study says.

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