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Frequent moves harm children – if they’re poor

Children who move three or more times before they turn 5 have more behavioral problems than their peers – but only if they are poor, report researchers at Cornell and the National Employment Law Project.

These children have more attention problems, anxiety or depression and are more aggressive or hyperactive at age 5 than those who had moved once, twice or not at all, the researchers said. But these problems occurred only among poor children, the study found.

“This suggests that frequent moves early in life are most disruptive for the most disadvantaged children,” said Kathleen Ziol-Guest, postdoctoral associate in policy analysis and management at Cornell, who led the study.

The paper, “Early Childhood Housing Instability and School Readiness,” was published online March 28 in Child Development and will appear in a forthcoming issue.

Moving is a fairly common experience for American families. In 2002, 10 percent of low-income children – and 6.5 percent of all children – had been living in their current home for less than six months. Also in 2002, 24 percent of families below poverty and 13 percent of families above poverty had moved once.

The researchers sought to determine how frequent moves relate to children’s readiness for school by analyzing national data on 2,810 children from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a longitudinal, representative study of children born in 20 large U.S. cities between 1998 and 2000. Parents were interviewed shortly after the birth of their children and by phone when the children were 1, 3 and 5 years old; in-home assessments were done when the children were 3 and 5 years old. The study also looked at the children’s language and literacy outcomes, as well as behavior problems reported by mothers.

Of the participants, 23 percent of the children had never moved, 48 percent had moved once or twice, and 29 percent had moved three or more times. Among children who moved three or more times before age 5, nearly half (44 percent) were poor (defined using the official federal threshold). Moving three or more times was not related to the children’s language and literacy outcomes.

The findings have implications, Ziol-Guest said, for families that have been uprooted due to the recent Great Recession.

“In low-income communities – and middle-class as well – across the nation, collapsing housing markets, foreclosures and evictions have followed on the heels of collapsing job markets,” she said. “These phenomena likely increase stress at home and disrupt caregiving environments for children, creating a domino effect that can diminish scholastic achievement and increase social problems.

“The long-term consequences of the housing crisis for the achievement and well-being of this generation of children, particularly poor children, may be significant,” she added.

The research was funded, in part, by Cornell.

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