Housing Instability and Children’s Schooling

The crisis of affordable housing, both rental and ownership, is causing families to move frequently as they find it difficult to make monthly housing payments. This can occur when rents are raised, when mortgages are re-set, when property taxes are increased, or when housing costs pile up.

It can also occur when incomes unexpectedly shrink — something that could be becoming more common in a recession-prone economy.

Residential mobility is nearly always accompanied by school mobility for children. According to Chester Hartman and Todd Michael Franke:

A key observation about school instability is that, largely, it is a function of residential instability: The families of highly mobile schoolchildren move frequently, for a range of reasons, most of which are disruptive, rather than planned and desired. They are evicted for nonpayment of rent or utility bills. They live in gentrifying areas where rents have climbed beyond their ability or willingness to pay. They are forced to move because of housing code enforcement, fires, and other endangering conditions. They become unemployed. They are displaced by the workings of government programs and eminent domain actions.

The currently mounting number of housing foreclosures could be pushing residential instability and school mobility to new levels as families are being forced to move. The rising energy prices could also be contributing to non-payment of utility bills, and subsequent housing mobility and school mobility.

In addition, some families live in inherently unstable situations. Like living in motels during off-tourist season, and then moving out when the tourist season begins. This seems to be the situation of some Native American families in South Dakota. According to Bryant High Horse Jr., a school counselor and member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe:

In the fall to spring, they [Native American adults] are able to find jobs, but no housing, so they will live in motels. During the summer and the tourist season, the cost of staying in the motels increases, and they move back to reservations. Then comes the fall. The families return to Rapid City, to a different motel—and a different school.

According to Rick St. Germaine of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire:

Native American students transfer freely among the array of schools located within the overlapping districts on Indian reservations as the continuing search for improved learning opportunities increases with the proportionate failure of the schools to resolve their learning needs. Student mobility for Native Americans is further compounded by the growing numbers of poverty-stricken families moving from Indian reservation communities to the cities in search of economic opportunities. Inner-city residencies don’t result in significant improvement for family self-sufficiency, and children are often caught up in a confusing twist of change, hopping back and forth from rural to urban and back again to rural settings as economic demands set the course of family instability.

Such residential and school instability, according to education experts, is harmful for children’s education.

According to David Kerbow, senior research associate at the Center for Urban School Improvement at the University of Chicago: “Particularly in mathematics, students may miss important content being taught if curricula [between schools] aren’t aligned or concepts are taught in different ways.”

A study of schools in California found that even students who had not moved had significantly lower test scores in schools that faced high student mobility rates. This is because in schools with high mobility, teachers and administrators face added stress and burnout coping with new students and a changing class composition. Such instability can be disruptive for the entire class, including students who did not move. Student mobility is more widespread in California than in any other state.

Frequent moves are far more harmful than just a couple of moves over a child’s school career. According to Sheila Crowley:

Moves that result in multiple life changes, including neighborhood and school, and that sever ties to social networks are harder for children to withstand than are simpler changes. Frequent moves or “hypermobility,” defined as six or more moves during childhood, are far more damaging than one or two well-spaced moves. Moves that are sudden or unplanned and that are the result of family disruption, such as divorce, death, or eviction, carry the most serious risk of emotional or psychological harm.

Lower-income families, minorities, non-married households, and renters are more likely to move frequently than other groups. Involuntary student mobility or student mobility under adverse circumstances could be hindering children from disadvantaged backgrounds from acquiring the educational wherewithal to be even modestly successful in an increasingly competitive world. America’s human resources are wilting, and channels for upward economic mobility are being blocked by our failure to address a need as basic as shelter.

A two-pronged approach — to make available reasonably priced housing (rental and owner-occupied), and to ensure a living wage and jobs for all American families — is needed. No one in America should have to live for part of the year in a motel and be shunted around from motel to reservation because of lack of stable affordable housing.

Dr. Nandinee K. Kutty is an economist and a policy consultant. She is an editor and contributor for the book Segregation: The Rising Costs for America (Routledge 2008). She is the author of numerous research papers published in peer-reviewed journals of economics and public policy. Dr. Kutty was formerly a professor at Cornell University. Her published research papers and op-eds are currently on the reading lists for courses taught at various universities in the U.S. Her e-mail address is nndkutty@aol.com.


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