In the July special issue of Longitudinal and Life Course Studies researchers from the UK and US have collaborated to investigate whether the experience of moving home affects children’s development in their pre-school years.
Children move home in their early years more often than they do once they start school. Our transatlantic research project looked at two cohorts of children born around the year 2000. We decided to focus on the first five years of life, rather than often-researched school ages, to examine the impact solely of moving home rather than the complications that arise when moving and changing school.
The British families in our study, the UK Millennium Cohort, had some 14,000 children who we followed up to age 5 in 2006. Four out of ten of them moved home between the age of 9 months and 5 years. They did not move as much, or as often, as the American families, from the Fragile Families & Child Wellbeing Study in US cities, born a couple of years earlier. The latter faced a housing market dominated by private rental.
Although private renting has been taking a rising share of housing provision in the UK, it accounted for only 7 per cent of the British sample at the time of the survey. Obviously, renting on the free market offers less security of tenure than social housing or owner occupation. As part of our research, we aimed to establish an impact of housing instability on child development in the US, which might highlight possible implications for the rise in private renting in Britain in recent years.
However, the results turned out to be more nuanced.
Children’s progress to age 5 was measured in terms of vocabulary and lack of two sorts of behaviour problem (directed outwards and inwards respectively). In each country, children who moved fared worse than those who did not. Nevertheless, this lack of progress was also allied with other unfavourable family-related factors, such as unemployment, unstable partnerships, low income, lack of qualifications or mental illness.
In both countries, such factors accounted, statistically, for the worse outcomes for children in moving families. At this point it looked as if moving home was not itself a source of disadvantage for children. It may be reassuring that our data provided no evidence, in general, for child development being jeopardised in such a widespread practice.
The ‘conclusion’ appeared to be that the impact of moving on children depends on the circumstances. This seemed so obvious that colleagues asked whether the question was worth posing in the first place, but we were able to take the investigation further.
We knew that the parents in the British survey tended to give positive reasons for having moved, such as getting a bigger home or moving to a better area. Few reported setbacks like eviction or relationship breakdown. For most, moving to a better place when their children were small was a ‘normal’ part of family-building on an upward track – unlikely to compromise child development.
Moves to worse housing, possibly triggered by stressful circumstances, may well be bad for children’s development. As an example of moves likely to be disadvantageous, we looked at those taking place within poor areas (the poorest 30 per cent of all neighbourhoods). In the British survey these were 20 per cent of all moves, and the child development scores tended to be unfavourable, even after allowing for the other factors. There was also evidence of significant shortfalls among families who lived in these poorer places without moving, compared to the rest of the country.
The implications of our findings for policies on housing were discussed in the piece which concludes this special issue. Governments have tried to promote housing mobility and to protect citizens from adverse consequences in policies which vary across tenures – owner occupation, social housing and the private rental sector. The balance between tenures has been changing since our data were collected, up to 2006. Policies should promote ‘advantaging’ moves and protect people from ’disadvantaging’ moves.
Improving one family’s freedom of choice may reduce the options for others, particularly with a limited supply of affordable housing. Increases in the housing stock might raise opportunities for ‘advantaging’ moves. Other policies could limit moves under stress or duress, or cushion their adverse consequences. These could include a revival of the neighbourhood renewal efforts in poor areas, which have fallen victim to government cuts.
Policymakers could also learn from the many and various aspects of family difficulties uncovered by our analysis. These suggest improving the coordination of agencies which support vulnerable young families – health, childcare, cash benefits as well as housing and planning – in disadvantaged areas.
Moving home and the Wellbeing of Children is a collection of papers published in Longitudinal and Life Course Studies, July 2016. The work arose out of the ESRC funded research Home Moves in the Early Years; the impact of Children in US and UK (grant ES/K000438/1) to Heather Joshi, Mary Clare Lennon and Ruth Lupton.