The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 6, 2014

Protecting children from instability will require a new, whole-family approach

August 6, 2014

What does it mean to grow up in instability?

Instability undermines the life chances of children in chronically disadvantaged communities—places where most residents are poor, services and schools are bad, amenities are few, and violence is endemic. In these communities, parents often cycle in and out of low-wage jobs, family members may cycle in and out of the household, and the family may move frequently in search of lower rents or safer neighborhoods.

Children growing up in these environments are likely to experience or witness violence, both in their communities and in their homes. And because of the stress of instability, their parents are more likely to have mental health challenges of their own and be less able to effectively shield their children from the constant strain.

Chronic instability can lead to toxic stress, which has been linked to a range of poor outcomes including learned helplessness (depression, feelings of lack of control) developmental delays, academic failure, and long-term mental and physical health problems.

Why housing assistance alone isn’t the solution 

Public and assisted housing serves some of the poorest and most vulnerable households in the nation—families that are living in or at risk of instability. Many developments in central cities are located in racially and economically segregated communities and suffer all the worst ills of chronic disadvantage.

Housing Choice Vouchers allow recipients to use housing subsidies in the private market. While most participants end up in better housing and safer neighborhoods than their counterparts in traditional public housing, they still generally live in low-income, predominantly minority neighborhoods.

In theory, having housing assistance should help these families be more stable—and there is evidence that having a voucher dramatically reduces the risk of homelessness. But the reality is more complex. These families are still extremely poor and live in neighborhoods where children are exposed to violence and other risks. Housing assistance helps, but is not sufficient to protect children from the consequences of instability and toxic stress.

Current housing policies don’t always work as intended 

Further, federal housing policy intended to address the problems of distressed public housing developments has actually created more instability for public housing residents.

HOPE VI and its successor, Choice Neighborhoods, provide funds for housing authorities to demolish their most distressed (deteriorated, high crime, and high poverty) developments and replace them with new, mixed-income housing. Other programs, such as HUD’s current Rental Assistance Demonstration, also provide opportunities for housing authorities to demolish and replace their worst properties.

While these efforts should eventually lead to improved housing and safer communities, current residents generally have to move—some of them several times— to make way for demolition and new construction. As bad as these developments generally are, involuntary relocation creates enormous stress and intense instability—disruptions to children’s education, loss of social supports, new financial challenges like dealing with utility payments, and a loss of supportive services.

Thoughtful relocation services and high-quality supports during and after relocation can help buffer some of these short-term stresses for families. Our research on the Chicago Family Case Management Demonstration showed the value of providing vulnerable public housing families facing relocation intensive case management, access to mental health services, and other services. These families not only ended up in better-quality housing in safer neighborhoods, but adults showed gains in employment and in mental and physical health.

A whole-family approach is necessary

But even these intensive services did not appear to be enough to protect children from the stresses of instability and relocation. Adolescents seemed to suffer the most, losing friends and social status and having conflicts with kids in their new communities. These findings led us to conclude that effectively buffering public housing children from the inherent instability of their environments as well as the extra effects of relocation requires a dual-generation, whole-family approach.

The multi-city HOST Demonstration is testing the effects of this intensive, two-generation model on outcomes for vulnerable families. HOST brings integrated services to these disadvantaged communities, helping both parents and children confront the challenges that lead to instability and stress. This model holds promise for helping to protect entire families from some of the most destructive effects of chronic instability.

For more on instability, read the paper and collection of essays that resulted from Urban's recent convening on instability.

Photo: In this photo taken March 16, 2011, Diane Link Wallace and her two daughters Janille Link, 18 and Diamond link, 11, stand outside their home in Chicago. Wallace says the lack of security, frequent floods and resulting mold finally pushed her and her asthmatic children out of the ABLA Homes public housing complex near downtown Chicago. After bouncing around different neighborhoods _ including one more dangerous than the projects she left behind _ she's settled in a place on the far South Side with a voucher. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

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