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Childhood exposure to polluted neighborhood environments and intergenerational income mobility, teenage birth, and incarceration in the USA

Abstract

This paper joins a growing body of research linking measures of the physical environment to population well-being, with a focus on neighborhood toxins. Extending a national database on the social mobility of American children growing up in over 70,000 Census tracts, we explore the association between childhood exposure to two forms of pollutants and three socioeconomic outcomes for African Americans, whites, and Latinos. We find that children who grew up in Census tracts with higher levels of traffic-related air pollution and housing-derived lead risk experienced lower adult incomes on average relative to their parents and higher likelihoods of being incarcerated as an adult or having children as teenagers, after controlling for standard socio-demographic characteristics and metropolitan-level effects. The spatial distribution of these two pollutants is surprisingly different, however, with air pollution varying mostly between regions of the country while lead risk varies dramatically between neighborhoods within the same city. Yet, each pollutant predicts the three aspects of social mobility similarly, and we show important disparities in exposure by race. Differential exposure to environmental toxins in childhood may be a contributor to racial inequality in socioeconomic outcomes among adults.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Although the average age at first arrest is in the teens, the average age at first admission to prison is in the mid-twenties and has been getting older. National data from around the time of our measurement, in 2013, also show that 78% or more of prison admissions in 2013 were among those age 25 or older (Carson & Sabol, 2016). There may be some small proportion of boys in our sample who were previously incarcerated and released before April 1, 2010, who would not be measured as “incarcerated” in our data.

  2. 2.

    The Washington State measure estimates the fraction of houses with lead risk due to age as 0% of the houses built after 1980, 8% of the houses built from 1960 to 1979, 43% of the houses built from 1940 to 1959, and 68% of the houses built before 1940, based on the findings of Jacobs et al. (2002). Applying those percentages to the housing age breakdown in the 2000 Census gives an estimate of the fraction of houses in each tract at risk of lead exposure due to housing age. To create the final score of lead risk from both housing age and poverty, the Washington State measure normalizes both the poverty rate and housing age risk rates so that each variable has mean 0 and standard deviation 1, then averages the two normalized measures, weighting the poverty measure at 42% and the age risk measure at 58%. These weights capture the relative size of the difference in mean Blood Lead Levels from each category (see Washington State Department of Health 2015, p 30–31).

  3. 3.

    Based on the present article, our models slightly diverge from those of Schachner and Sampson (2020) beyond adding the tract-level toxin measures. We use tracts’ family poverty rate and % bachelor’s degree to proxy neighborhood socioeconomics rather than their tract status index, which averages the z-scores of median family income (logged) and % bachelor’s degree. We also added a proxy for housing stock age and excluded the parental cognitive skills measure employed in that article's models.

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Acknowledgments

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the conference on Demographic Responses to Changes in the Natural Environment held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (October 24th, 2019), supported in part by a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute on Child Health and Human Development (R13 HD096853). We thank conference participants and anonymous reviewers of the journal for helpful comments, and Jared Schachner for conducting the supporting analysis of residential sorting by environmental toxins in Los Angeles.

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Correspondence to Robert Manduca.

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Manduca, R., Sampson, R.J. Childhood exposure to polluted neighborhood environments and intergenerational income mobility, teenage birth, and incarceration in the USA. Popul Environ 42, 501–523 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11111-020-00371-5

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Keywords

  • Social mobility
  • Environmental inequality
  • Air pollution
  • Lead exposure
  • Neighborhood effects
  • Racial disparities