​Being poorer than the rest of hood

Are you a family man or woman and thinking of moving to a neighbourhood where people have more expensive cars and prettier houses than you can afford? Think again.

Chances are that your teenage kids will feel deprived, suffer from anxiety disorders and display aggressive behaviour. Or so Dr. Jaap Nieuwenhuis found.

Problems in deprived neighbourhoods are often tackled through socio-economic integration. The thought behind this approach is that residents with lower incomes and educational levels are motivated to improve their positions through their proximity to neighbours with a higher socio-economic standing. However, young people who move to more affluent areas actually exhibit more problem behaviour, such as depression, anxiety disorders, aggressive behaviour and conflicts with their parents, says Dr. Jaap Nieuwenhuis in a TU Delft press release.

This is one of the most significant conclusions from Nieuwenhuis's recently published research entitled Being Poorer Than the Rest of the Neighbourhood: Relative Deprivation and Problem Behaviour of Youth. Nieuwenhuis is a sociologist from the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment.

Over a period of five years, Nieuwenhuis and colleagues monitored young people throughout the Netherlands aged between 12 and 16, tracking aspects such as changes in their parents' incomes; when they moved house; and changes in the degree of problematic behaviour.

It seems that young people compare their situations with those of their more prosperous neighbours, thereby confirming their relatively disadvantaged socio-economic position. If they subsequently consider the disparity as unfair, their feelings may be manifested as problematic behaviour.

In an interview with Delta, Nieuwenhuis explained his controversial findings in more detail.

You made many headlines. One in particular, stood out. The Algemeen Dagblad wrote: ‘Poor teenagers become aggressive in rich neighbourhood’. A nice compact headline that says it all.

"I disagree. It is an oversimplification. I did not research poor people at all. The sample I investigated did not contain many poor households. What I found is that relative difference in income is related to depression, anxiety disorders, aggressive behaviour and conflicts with parents. So even if you have a good income, if you move to a place where most of the people around you are richer, your teenage children may suffer the consequences."

That sounds even more disturbing.

"Yes."

You tried to find a causal relationship between relative income and problematic behaviour. But you couldn't find it. So does that relative deprivation theory hold? And what else could otherwise be at play here?

"I think that there is a causal relationship. The reason I could not prove it may be because my research sample was not big enough and the differences in income were not large enough. Also, income as an indicator might not capture the whole story. I want to continue this line of research and use a more subjective criterion, namely residents' own perception: do they themselves feel deprived? It is essential for our understanding of the effects of neighbourhood on individuals to know for whom the neighbourhood matters and for whom it does not matter."

One of your concluding remarks is that policy should primarily focus on increasing opportunities for youth in terms of education and employment rather than through social mixing. In other words, through investment in education. Are you not shying away from your responsibility? Shouldn't urban architects also contribute and help solve the problems associated with poverty in an urban setting?

"I believe there are far better ways to help create pleasant neighbourhoods than by social mixing. Neighbourhoods require more customised work. Depending on their inhabitants, policy makers should offer services such as community centres, for instance, for social activities. By pointing this out and warning about the potential pitfalls of social mixing, I do believe that I take responsibility as a researcher."

The research has been open access published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, and is available for download here.