Moving to low-poverty areas can affect children’s language, economic prospects

Rising economic and neighborhood segregation may be contributing to linguistic differences within the African American population, which may also be accelerating economic inequality among African Americans, according to a new study co-authored by a University of Chicago researcher.

The study, published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that as African American children moved into lower-poverty areas, they tended to use speech less characteristic of what linguists call African American Vernacular English. Over time, these children used speech more typical of Standard American English.

Linguists have long emphasized the benefits of dialects to minority groups as a means of solidifying and promoting cultural identity. At the same time, there is evidence of persistent discrimination against non-SAE in work settings, schools and housing markets.

The findings may have implications for policies addressing the geographic concentration of poverty in America, according to Jens Ludwig, the McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service Administration, Law and Public Policy, and a co-author of the study.

“Housing policies that reduce economic segregation may improve the long-term earnings prospects of African American children from disadvantaged circumstances, in part by helping them further develop the ability to switch back and forth between SAE and AAVE, as needed,” Ludwig said.

The researchers used a data set compiled in the mid-to-late 1990s for a federal housing program called Moving to Opportunity, which was carried out by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, allowing eligible families to obtain vouchers to move into lower-poverty neighborhoods.

Under the Moving to Opportunity program, some families received housing vouchers while others did not receive assistance. For the new linguistic study, Ludwig’s research team analyzed interviews of more than 600 non-Hispanic African American youth 10 to 15 years after their families participated in the federal project.

The authors examined how voucher and non-voucher children enunciated common words like “this” and “them,” detecting differences in speech patterns among those interviewed. Whereas children of families that did not receive vouchers were categorized as having speech closer to AAVE, children in lower-poverty neighborhoods had patterns more associated with SAE over time.

A separate study by Ludwig’s co-author, Harvard University economics professor Lawrence Katz, tracked children in the Moving to Opportunity program into their 20s and found sizable gains in their adult earnings. Using those results, the PNAS paper suggests that at least part of the gains are due to the ability of children to switch between SAE and AAVE, and might be attributed to increases in lifetime earnings by about $18,000, around 3-4 percent of income.

The study does not imply that children should avoid learning AAVE—the authors point out that AAVE is a distinct dialect similar to variants like Cockney British and Appalachian American English, and advocate for efforts to eliminate discrimination against speakers of different vernaculars. Given current discrimination against AAVE speakers, the study provides understanding as to why moving into lower-poverty neighborhoods improves children’s future economic outcomes, while also providing them the opportunity master a second dialect like SAE.

“Existing resources in the poorest communities are often not enough to help them develop fluency in both the vernacular and the Standard English,” said Stanford University linguistic professor John Rickford, a co-author of the study. “For optimum success, they need both. This study shows us a means by which their potential for developing greater linguistic versatility can be increased, while we also work to eliminate discrimination towards non-Standard English speakers in the U.S. and around the world.”