REYES: Environmental health affects child education

Opinions Column: And (Economic) Justice For All

Researchers, activists and practitioners in environmental justice (EJ) have conducted work supporting the conclusion that poor communities of color are more likely to be plagued by environmental health hazards and pollution. Much of the research and media coverage has focused on the human and public health consequences of poor air and water quality, unsafe housing and a lack of active and public mass transportation services. However, there are also serious long-term implications to the educational outcomes of the people most affected by environmental burdens, primarily poor children of color.

Children in low-income communities are especially vulnerable to environmental hazards because their early years are formative for developing positive emotional, well-being and health factors. The biological and psychosocial changes that occur between a child’s birth through adolescence have a tremendous influence on educational factors including achievement, attainment, growth and focus. However, there are numerous ways that their environments and neighborhoods influence their educational progress: what is more, these negative externalities are more likely to impact low-income communities and children of color, further exacerbating what is known as the “achievement gap” but more accurately defined as an “opportunity gap.” For example, children with access to safe outdoor green spaces have the ability to participate in active play, building essential critical thinking skills and supporting positive physical development. We see serious disparities in access to public green space. In Los Angeles, “white neighborhoods (as defined by neighborhoods with 75 percent or higher white residents) host 31.8 acres of park space for every 1,000 people, compared to the 1.7 acres in black neighborhoods and 0.6 acres in Latinx neighborhoods.” Moreover, children who live in high-density housing have limited access to private open space, making the dearth of adequate park space in low-income neighborhoods especially low. Despite the varied issues with the air quality in Los Angeles, expanding the number and coverage of trees by creating parks and mini-oases are good ways to promote positive health behaviors.

Another major component of positive child development and educational outcomes is housing quality. Low-income homes are more likely to expose children to higher levels of nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and radon: allergens associated with asthma, poor drinking water and sanitation infrastructure. Children in deteriorated public housing and low-quality private housing are both at risk for exposures to lead, airborne toxins and infestations of mold, mice and cockroaches. When considering the strong negative associations of poor housing quality (and high traffic exposure) on children’s physical activity — along with the positive impacts of activity on social-emotional competence, focus and effortful control — low-income children of color are at a significant disadvantage in the classroom. In a study of fifth and sixth graders, researchers found that students with more “health assets” (measures of physical, behavioral, psychological and family health) were “more likely to be at goal for standardized tests in reading, writing and mathematics.” What is especially noteworthy is that students with the most health assets (on a scale of 14) had a 2.2 times greater likelihood of attaining the standard compared to students with the least health assets. The various health consequences of poor quality housing lead to high rates of absenteeism, inattentiveness in the classroom and lower grade-point averages and test scores. What is more, these quality issues intersect (and confound) with family and neighborhood socioeconomic status. A study conducted by the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy (MCHP) concluded that children living in public housing had worse education and health outcomes than comparison groups — yet living in public housing in wealthier neighborhoods was positively associated with better adolescent outcomes. It is important to note that it is the family and housing characteristics that drive this association — not whether the housing is public or private.

Highlighting the numerous ways the built environment — housing, open park space and transportation systems —influences student achievement is pivotal to supporting an educated, productive citizenry and workforce. These out-of-school factors should have greater emphasis in education policy reform efforts and discussions to boost educational achievement and attainment in public schools especially when considering the high costs and flaws associated with popular education reforms like class-size reduction and merit-based pay for teachers. Creating a research agenda on children’s environmental health and its effects on education outcomes can strengthen the evidence base for place-conscious children’s policy and promote regional economic prosperity. At a time of increasing fiscal constraints, it is critical to invest in policies and programs that support positive child development in an economically efficient and impactful manner.

Thalya Reyes is an Edward J. Bloustein School master's candidate for public policy and city and regional planning. Her column, “And (Economic) Justice For All,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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