Second-generation social scientist traces effects of poverty; tackles myths about racists

Geoffrey Wodtke sitting on a staircase
Geoffrey Wodtke: growing up in poor neighbourhoods impacts success in school (Diana Tyszko photo)

The neighbourhoods I grew up in were middle class,” says Wisconsin-born University of Toronto sociologist Geoffrey Wodtke. “But growing up in and around Milwaukee — one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. and containing some of the poorest areas in the country — we were never that far from some very disadvantaged places.”

As a prof in the 60s and 70s in the U.S., Wodtke’s educational psychologist father became interested in racial inequity and schooling, “back when it was a taboo topic,” Wodtke says. “I grew up talking with him about that, reading a lot of the stuff he’d put in front of me and got into that as an area of research as a result.”

Wodtke — whose mother worked with students from a variety of poor neighbourhoods as a special education teacher in Wisconsin — has started to make a name for himself with the discovery that the amount of time children spend growing up in poor neighbourhoods directly impacts their success in school. “In general, the longer a child spends in a poor neighbourhood, the worse off they are,” Wodtke says.

An individual who lives in a poor neighbourhood for part of their childhood and in a wealthy neighbourhood for another part of their childhood is more likely to finish high school, for example, than comparable youth who spend their entire childhood in poor neighbourhoods.

Wodtke’s findings are derived from data from the U.S. Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which has followed children from birth through early adulthood almost every year since 1968.

He compared outcomes — whether someone graduated from high school, whether someone became a parent as a teen — among children who lived in different neighbourhoods for different amounts of time but who were otherwise comparable on measured family and household characteristics.

The findings about the importance of duration of exposure to certain neighbourhoods have led to a re-analysis of some big housing mobility experiments in the U.S., Wodtke says.

For example, Wodtke notes that moving a child from an environment of poverty to one of opportunity specifically during early childhood appears to increase the chances for those youth of attending college and earning a higher income as a young adult. There has been some success in the U.S. on this score when randomly-selected residents of poor, high-density housing projects are provided with housing vouchers enabling them to move to a higher income neighbourhood.

Wodtke hopes to next investigate why growing up in a poor neighbourhood has negative effects on children.

“There’s some sense that children living in poor neighbourhoods don’t go as a far in school because the schools to which they have access just aren’t very good.”

But there may other explanations, Wodtke says. For example, children living in poor neighbourhoods are disproportionately exposed to violent crime and environmental health hazards that interfere with brain development and cognitive function.

“Unfortunately, there are few empirical studies on this, so I’m currently in the process of gathering data.”

Another area of interest for Wodtke is attitudes toward race. Several years ago, there was extensive media coverage of a study that said smart white people are less racist than less-intelligent white people. The findings didn’t ring true to Wodtke.

“I was a little skeptical of that claim and I thought ‘That’s a much too simple answer,’” he says.

Working with data from the General Social Survey and Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality, he found that white people who ranked as intelligent think of themselves as quite liberal and are more likely to reject negative racial stereotypes and support racial equality in principle. They support residential integration and inter-racial marriage and are less likely to refer to black people as lazy or unintelligent.

However, this same group of intelligent white people were no more likely, and in some cases they were even less likely, to support policies designed to encourage racial equality — such as workplace affirmative action, open housing laws, or busing between school districts — than their less-intelligent counterparts. Moreover, among white Americans who were born well before the Civil Rights Movement, the association between higher intelligence and rejection of negative racial stereotypes completely disappears.

“When you take a broader look at the association of racial attitudes and intelligence in the U.S., you see a much more complicated picture than what was being put out in the media,” Wodtke says.

The Bulletin Brief logo

Subscribe to The Bulletin Brief