Homeless Children: Update on Research, Policy, Programs, and Opportunities. Residential mobility

05/15/2010

Residential moves feature prominently in inventories of stressful life events for adults and children alike. Although researchers caution that the context of moves and the extent to which they are freely chosen are important determinants of their impact (Stokols & Shumaker, 1982), moves among families experiencing homelessness are likely associated with evictions by landlords or by the primary tenants at a previous residence and other adverse events over which children typically exercise little control. Scanlon and Devine (2001) reviewed research on residential mobility and found clear adverse effects on academic performance, rates of grade retention, and rates of high school graduation. At that time they judged the literature on behavioral outcomes to be too sparse to draw firm conclusions.

A more recent review of the relationship of residential moves to health, broadly construed, found high rates of residential mobility were associated with increased behavioral problems in both children and adolescents (Jellyman & Spencer, 2008). Children who moved more often exhibited more indirect aggression, committed more property offenses, and had more behavioral problems requiring psychological help. Adolescents had higher rates or earlier instances of drug use, depression, sexual behavior, and teen pregnancy. Families had less continuity in health care. Other studies (summarized by Hertzman, 2010) have found residential instability to be associated with lower school readiness and early behavioral and emotional problems for younger children.

For obvious reasons, families are never randomly assigned to high versus low mobility conditions to examine the effects, so an important concern in this literature is the extent to which mobility is simply a marker for poverty and other risk factors or is itself a causal variable. It is clear, for example, that low-income children move more often than their middle-income peers (e.g., Evans, Eckenrode, & Marcynyszyn, 2010). Jellyman and Spencer (2008) consider this caution, but find that effects of mobility hold after controlling for confounding variables. They suggest that mobility may be one way in which poverty exerts its effects on child outcomes.

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