The Problems of Disadvantaged Youth An Economic Perspective
edited by Jonathan Gruber
University of Chicago Press, 2009
Cloth: 978-0-226-30945-3 | Electronic: 978-0-226-30947-7


One of the most important public policy issues in the United States is how to improve the life prospects of disadvantaged youth who, in their formative years, face low-quality school systems, poor access to health care, and high-crime environments. The Problems of Disadvantaged Youth includes a broad range of research examining various aspects of disadvantage, and ways of increasing the ability of low-income youths to improve their circumstances later in life.

Taking an empirical economics perspective, the nine essays in this volume assess the causal impacts of disadvantage on youth outcomes, and how policy interventions can alleviate those impacts. Each chapter develops a framework to describe the relationship between youths and later life outcomes, addressing such factors as educational opportunity, health, neighborhood crime rates, and employment. This vital book documents the serious short- and long-term negative consequences of childhood disadvantage and provides nuanced evidence of the impact of public policy designed to help needy children.


Jonathan Gruber is professor and associate head of the Department of Economics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of the Program on Children at the National Bureau of Economic Research, where he is a research associate.



- Jonathan Gruber
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226309477.003.0001
[youth, educational opportunities, schooling ages, health status, contextual influences]
Youth from low-income households, minority youth, and youth from broken families face a series of barriers to success that may have negative implications both today and in the future. A critical influence on the outcomes of disadvantaged youth is their educational opportunities. While there have been a number of initiatives to improve the educational opportunities available to low-income children, one of the most popular has been allowing students to opt out of their underperforming local school and choose another public school. This chapter provides an analysis of the impact of the recent increases in compulsory schooling ages. Another dimension along which disadvantaged youth suffer relative to their advantaged counterparts is health status. These gaps arise from several sources: differences in inherited health status (genetic transmission); differences in treatment of illness; differences in environments that impact health status; and differences in risk-taking behaviors that determine health outcomes (such as smoking and drinking). Furthermore, the chapter examines the role of contextual influences on the outcomes of disadvantaged children: the unemployment of their parents, the religiosity of the household, and the rate of crime in the neighborhood. (pages 1 - 12)
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I. Education

- David Figlio, Jeffrey Roth
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226309477.003.0002
[pre-kindergarten, student behavior, behavioral benefits, disciplinary problems, disadvantaged youth]
This chapter represents an attempt to systematically study the effects of pre-kindergarten participation on student behavior. The issue—that preschool separates parents from children during crucial years of their development as a result of either an elective or required return to the workforce—remains at the heart of the debate over its potentially zero-sum benefit/harm ratio. The study examines whether children who attended public school pre-kindergarten in Florida acquired a better grasp of socially acceptable behavior than their four-year-old peers who attended either a nonpublic preschool or no preschool at all. The analysis indicates that public pre-kindergarten leads to reduced student disciplinary problems and reduced rates of being classified emotionally disabled or severely emotionally disturbed. It is found that the favorable estimated effects of public pre-kindergarten programs are concentrated in the least advantaged communities. In relatively advantaged neighborhoods, public pre-kindergarten programs do not have appreciable behavioral benefits. This may be due to differences in community institutions, neighborhood effects, or private pre-kindergarten alternatives in these more advantaged neighborhoods. (pages 15 - 42)
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- Julie Berry Cullen, Brian A. Jacob
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226309477.003.0003
[school quality, lotteries, test score performance, academic benefit, elementary student]
The importance of school quality is an open question. This chapter provides new evidence on whether expanded access to sought-after schools can improve achievement. The strong cross-sectional relationship observed between test score performance and school quality for the typical CPS elementary student is largely spurious, and highlights the importance of using a research design that compares like for like. Several possible explanations are explored, including the possibility that the typical student may be choosing schools for nonacademic reasons (safety, proximity) and may experience benefits along some dimensions. School quality is a complex and multidimensional concept. The chapter is concerned with the impact of attending a choice school, considering elementary school students in Chicago Public Schools. It uses lotteries to examine whether elementary school students who gain access to desirable schools do better. The great advantage is that randomly selected winners and losers are by definition exchangeable. The coexistence of intense competition for entry and little academic benefit to students winning the lotteries could indicate that parents are not well-informed about the education production function, and mistake higher school outputs for higher school value-added. (pages 43 - 84)
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- Philip Oreopoulos
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226309477.003.0004
[compulsory schooling, social-economic outcomes, disadvantaged youth, employment outcomes, labor market]
Many states have discussed raising the school leaving age to seventeen or eighteen, almost making high school completion compulsory. This chapter uses these recent changes to the school leaving age to explore the potential for compulsory schooling to serve as an effective policy for improving current social-economic outcomes, especially for today's disadvantaged youth. The purpose is to present new evidence and discussion for considering whether to support such policies. Past studies only indicate that compulsory school laws appear to have been effective in generating adult gains for would-be dropouts many decades ago. The chapter focuses on whether recent changes and experiences have had any impact on increasing school enrollment and attainment. It estimates the subsequent impact on earnings and on other labor market outcomes for the small fraction affected by these laws. The overall results suggest that raising the school leaving age above sixteen offers significant gains to earnings and employment outcomes, on average, to students who otherwise would have left sooner. (pages 85 - 112)
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II. Health and Healthy Behaviors

- Janet Currie, Mark Stabile
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226309477.003.0005
[mental health, childhood, hyperactivity, higher income, human capital]
The prevalence and importance of child mental health problems have been increasingly recognized in recent years. Most studies assume that childhood mental health problems will have negative effects and work to document the prevalence of these conditions, examine the efficacy of specific interventions, or examine the factors that might be related to the development of mental health conditions. Children with mental health problems suffer large negative consequences in terms of their achievement test scores and schooling attainment. Hyperactivity appears to have the broadest and most consistently negative effects, followed by conduct disorders. Studies indicate that mental health conditions in early childhood are predictive of future outcomes, both because mental health conditions are likely to persist, and because early mental health problems have independent and persistent negative effects on children's future test scores. Higher income protects against the negative effects of mental health conditions, though poor children are somewhat more likely to be affected by these problems than richer ones. (pages 115 - 148)
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- Patricia M. Anderson, Kristin F. Butcher, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226309477.003.0006
[obesity, childhood, health status, disadvantaged children, economic research]
Obesity has been one of the fastest-growing health concerns among children, particularly among disadvantaged children, carrying with it both long- and short-term consequences. Understanding the increase in childhood obesity is important for devising policies to deal with this health problem. Although recent research and policy activity surrounding this issue has focused particularly on the food available to children through schools, there is a gap in the knowledge when it comes to the impact of the home environment on children's obesity. This chapter focuses on a fundamental component of health status—obesity—for which disadvantaged children have particularly poor outcomes. It sheds light on how parents' health status is related to their children's, how that relationship differs for disadvantaged and advantaged children, and how the relationship changes over time. Economic research on obesity has focused on changes in the (implicit) prices of food and exercise that have increased caloric intake and reduced energy expenditure. Designing good policies to affect childhood obesity will require an understanding of how the environment that children face is related to their body mass. (pages 149 - 180)
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- Melissa S. Kearney, Phillip B. Levine
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226309477.003.0007
[teen childbearing, labor market, socioeconomic disadvantage, birth cohort, welfare receipt]
This chapter concerns the potential harm that teen childbearing imposes on the mother, the child, and potentially, to society more broadly. It highlights the fact that women who give birth as teens tend to subsequently have lower educational attainment and higher rates of welfare receipt. Public discussions have focused on a number of potential explanations: the incentives of the welfare system, poor labor market outcomes for teens, lack of access to affordable contraception, poor parental and peer influences, and socioeconomic disadvantage, among others. The chapter uses micro-level data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics to provide a descriptive analysis of the relationship between socioeconomic disadvantage and early childbearing. It also aggregates Vital Statistics microdata from 1968 through 2003 to conduct a cohort-based analysis of the relationship between rates of socioeconomic disadvantage of a birth cohort and the cohort's subsequent early childbearing experiences. The results of analyses suggest that the correlation of early childbearing across generations is much stronger in the aggregate than at the individual level. (pages 181 - 210)
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III. Contextual Influences

- Marianne Page, Ann Huff Stevens, Jason Lindo
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226309477.003.0008
[parental income, young adults, youth outcomes, socioeconomic, disadvantaged children]
Government policies that increase the incomes of poor families have been promoted as a way of improving children's life chances on the grounds that children who grow up in rich families tend to have better socioeconomic outcomes as adults than children who grow up in poor families. Understanding which factors contribute to the intergenerational transmission of socioeconomic status is crucial to the development of public policies that improve youth outcomes. The purpose of the analysis in this chapter is to make a convincing case that displacement produces a significant exogenous shock to family income over many years. The chapter estimates the effects of this shock on children's outcomes as young adults. Family income itself, as opposed to the many family characteristics that are correlated with income, plays an important role in determining disadvantaged children's long-run socioeconomic success. Disruptions to family income do seem to compound the difficulties disadvantaged children will face as adults. There is little evidence that such disruptions have measurable negative effects on children who are otherwise relatively advantaged. (pages 213 - 236)
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- Rajeev Dehejia, Thomas DeLeire, Erzo F. P. Luttmer, Josh Mitchell
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226309477.003.0009
[religious organization, social organization, disadvantaged environment, youth, poverty]
This chapter examines whether religious and social organizations benefit youth by offsetting the long-term consequences of growing up in a disadvantaged environment. Research in economics and other social sciences has documented that children who grow up in poverty have worse physical health, lower levels of cognitive ability, lower levels of school achievement, more emotional and behavioral problems, and higher teenage childbearing rates. The link between poverty and poor outcomes has been hypothesized to be partially due to deficiencies in parenting, home environments, and neighborhoods. The chapter builds on these results by examining whether involvement with religion or social organizations mitigates the long-run negative effects on youth of growing up in a disadvantaged environment. There are significant long-term effects of childhood disadvantages on subsequent outcomes in adulthood. (pages 237 - 274)
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- Anna Aizer
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226309477.003.0010
[neighborhood violence, educational disadvantages, urban youth, child outcomes, emotional development]
There have been numerous studies of the impact of exposure to violence on children that have linked exposure to violence with restricted emotional development, aggressive behavior, depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, learning problems, and truancy. Neighborhood violence is often correlated with high rates of domestic violence and other types of disadvantage (racial, income, and parental education), which in turn has deleterious effects on child outcomes. There have been numerous studies of the impact of exposure to violence on children, with most of the research conducted by psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers. This research has linked exposure to violence with restricted emotional development, aggressive behavior, depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, learning problems, and truancy. Reducing neighborhood violence via enhanced law-enforcement policies without reducing other sources of neighborhood disadvantage may have a limited impact on the youth outcomes. Policies aimed directly at lessening the income and educational disadvantages of families may prove the most effective. (pages 275 - 308)
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Author Index

Subject Index