Crowding, Commutes, and Children

Rising rents are causing families to move to small spaces or into suburbs. These crowded households and long commutes may directly impact children. 

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A housing crisis does not only carry economic weight, but also has implications for health and wellness. Cities in the United States have been facing rapid gentrification as the increase in wages of lower and middle-income residents lags behind steep and continuously rising rents. Families who cannot keep up with rent hikes may opt for smaller spaces in their cities, or move to less expensive exurbs and suburbs. But when these families make such decisions, they may have to deal with crowded households or longer commutes to work, both of which have a direct impact on children.

Over 10 million children in the US live in crowded homes, or households in which multiple family members share bedrooms. Sometimes, common spaces like the kitchen and living room are converted into places for sleeping. Kids in these overcrowded settings may be more likely to struggle academically and socially, receiving poor grades and fighting peers. When adults’ commute times to work lengthen, parents themselves face a greater risk of hypertension and decreased sleep quality, but the commute may also cut into the time they have to spend with their children.

Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles examined how overcrowded homes and longer commute times may be associated with early child development. They hypothesized that this impact may be of greater magnitude for lower-income families, compared to those in high-income neighborhoods.

Residential crowding was also linked decreases in children’s cognitive development, as well as language and communication skills.

To measure child development, the researchers used a tool called the Early Development Instrument: teachers evaluate whether a child is ready, somewhat ready, or not ready to attend school, basing their decisions on the children’s physical, social, emotional, and cognitive wellbeing. The researchers gathered materials from eight states, including California, Texas, and New York, as well as Washington DC from 2010 to 2017.

The study found that children being deemed “not ready” for school was related to living in overcrowded households –defined as the number family members exceeding the number of rooms in a home—regardless of income level. Residential crowding was also linked decreases in children’s cognitive development, as well as language and communication skills. But the researchers found no link between crowded homes and children’s ability to socialize and mature emotionally. Children in low-income neighborhoods with parents who had longer commute times, however, exhibited greater social difficulties and struggled more with emotional maturity, compared to children in more affluent areas.

While the magnitude of the changes in child development related to household conditions in this study was small, the researchers emphasize the importance of the potential for home environments and family dynamics to impact health at a population level. From a policy perspective, the researchers encourage considering the health of children during decisions on urban planning and transportation.

Feature image: Thomas Hawk, Little Pink Houses, used under CC BY-NC 2.0