Neighborhood Impact on Boys' Dropout Rates Seen Limited

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A new report by the Urban Institute suggests that family factors outweigh neighborhood characteristics in influencing the dropout rates of urban boys.

While having even a few poor residents in their neighborhood appears to substantially increase the chances that teenage boys will drop out of school, compared with those of boys living in areas with no poor people, the correlation appears to level off when the poverty rate reaches just 5 percent, the study found.

At the same time, the study indicates, living in a two-parent household is one of the strongest predictors that such boys will stay in school.

The analysis of data from the 1980 U.S. Census challenges the presumption that social problems such as dropping out tend to spread like an epidemic, concludes the report's author, Rebecca L. Clark, a research associate at the Washington think tank.

Working from such a model, earlier research on dropout rates has suggested that decreases in neighborhood quality cause a steady increase in dropout rates, and that, once neighborhood quality falls below a certain level, dropout rates skyrocket, Ms. Clark observes in the study issued late last month.

She writes that she found "no evidence to support an epidemic model,'' and much to challenge the notion that dropout rates skyrocket after neighborhoods deteriorate beyond a certain point.

Comparisons of social problems to diseases, she argues, tend to obscure the fact people can be influenced by good examples--or, in effect, "catch health.'' Moreover, she says, research based on such an analogy tends to focus solely on either positive or negative influences in a neighborhood.

In her study, Ms. Clark simultaneously examined both positive and negative influences on 22,534 urban boys in their neighborhoods, including their family characteristics.

Two-Parent Homes

The presence of two parents at home appears to have a far greater influence than neighborhood poverty levels in determining whether boys will stay in school, the report notes.

Boys who live with both parents appear about 80 percent less likely to drop out of high school than boys who live with one parent or with another older relative, it says.

A boy living with one parent or a relative, Ms. Clark found, would have to see his neighborhood's poverty rate decline by 68 percentage points in order to have the same chance of staying in school as a boy in a two-parent family.

A boy also was less likely to drop out as the education levels of his parents increased, the author found, and a parent's lower job status--or absence of a job--tended to increase the odds that a boy would leave school.

As a neighborhood's poverty rate climbs from zero to 5 percent, the odds that a boy living in that neighborhood will drop out of school increase by about 90 percent, the report says.

As the poverty rate of a neighborhood rises from 5 percent to 10 percent, however, the odds that a boy will drop out show an additional increase of less than 4 percent, it says.

Over all, black youths are more likely than whites or Asian-Americans to drop out, the study found. But, when blacks' family characteristics--such as the decreased likelihood of their living with two parents--are taken into account, they actually are more likely than whites or Asians to stay in school.

Hispanic boys appear to be more likely all than others to drop out, even when family influences are taken into account, the study found.

Copies of "The Effect of Neighborhood Characteristics on Dropping Out Among Teenage Boys'' can be obtained from the Urban Institute for $8 by calling (202) 833-7200.

Vol. 12, Issue 16

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