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Neighbourhood and policy as a risk or protection factor for children’s development

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Is a child’s outcomes affected by its neighbours; whether the local government is more or less restrictive in its use of out-of-home care and other preventive measures; or if the local government prefers foster care to residential care? A PhD project at SFI – The Danish National Centre for Social Research and Aarhus University seeks to identify factors and model paths that lead to either favourable or unfavourable development within the larger – structural and political – context of childhood and adolescence.

Denmark is – and has historically been – a relatively homogeneous society. However Danish children and adolescents grow up in diverse environments with very different conditions and opportunities. The demographic composition of neighbourhoods varies considerably and autonomous local government causes great dissimilarities in the standards of service provided by the municipalities.

Human development is understood as a product of the interaction between the individual and his or her surroundings, from close interpersonal contact to structural conditions. Thus, from this perspective, studies of children’s development should include the surroundings from the closest relations to the local neighbourhood and the larger political and economic context.

The first ambition of the project is to identify factors of risk and protection constituted by the socio-economic composition of Danish children’s local neighbourhoods and how these factors interact with individual and family-related risk and protection factors. Neighbourhood composition might affect children’s development through several mechanisms. Some conclude that growing up in a disadvantaged neighbourhood is a disadvantage and vice versa e.g. because of social contagion from peer influences or collective socialization from adult role models. Some conclude that growing up in an advantaged neighbourhood is a disadvantage for children with low socio-economic status e.g. because the relative deprivation makes them feel inferior and perform accordingly. These mechanisms all imply a minimum threshold before the socialization or psychological reaction takes place. Consequently the project seeks to identify the threshold for at what point the socioeconomic composition in a neighbourhood is so adverse that it constitutes a risk (or alternatively the point it constitutes a factor of protection) to the development of children and whether these thresholds differ depending on the children’s characteristics and individual risks.

Secondly the project examines whether policy matters for the development of children living in the Danish municipalities. Seeing that policy is far away from the individual child compared to individual or family-related problems and the composition of the nearest neighbourhood, effects of policy on children’s developmental outcomes must be expected to be weak, if at all significant. Therefore the test will focus on the municipal services that intervene strongest in the lives of vulnerable children and thereby plausibly have the strongest effects on their outcomes, namely out-of-home care and other preventive measures. In addition, out-of-home care and other preventive measures are particularly suitable, as the frequency of assignment to these services differs greatly between municipalities, and municipalities prefer different measures.

The analyses are based on administrative data on cohorts of Danish children born in the early and mid-nineties and on their parents, siblings, stepparents and other household members in order to include known individual and family-related risks such as diagnoses, unemployment etc. In addition the data contains information about the socio-economic composition of the neighbourhoods where the children lived at three points during their adolescence. Unlike most existing studies of neighbourhood effects, these neighbourhoods are not defined by administrative units – which are often quite heterogeneous – but by similarities in type and ownership of dwelling for groups of a minimum of 150 directly neighbouring households. Finally the data include Danish municipalities’ spending and choice of measures in a range of fields of immediate relevance to children’s development e.g. schools and out-of-home care. This makes it possible to separate the local level from the administrative and service-providing level.

The analysis will focus on several developmental outcomes like school performance, occupation, health and crime.

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