Toxic Neighborhoods: The Joint Effects of Concentrated Poverty and Environmental Lead Contamination on Early Childhood Development

Geoff Wodtke

Geoffrey T. Wodtke, PhD
Associate Professor
The University of Chicago

Although socioeconomic disparities in cognitive ability emerge early in the life course, most research on the consequences of living in a disadvantaged neighborhood focuses on school-age children or adolescents. In this study, we outline and test a theoretical model of neighborhood effects on cognitive development during early childhood that highlights the mediating role of environmental health hazards, and in particular, exposure to neurotoxic lead. To evaluate this model, we follow 1,266 children in Chicago from birth through the time of school entry, tracking their areal risk of lead exposure and the socioeconomic composition of their neighborhoods over time. We then estimate the joint effects of neighborhood poverty and environmental lead contamination on receptive vocabulary ability. We find that sustained exposure to disadvantaged neighborhoods reduces vocabulary skills during early childhood and that this effect operates largely through a causal mechanism involving lead contamination.