Residential Mobility in Early Childhood: Household and Neighborhood Characteristics of Movers and Non-Movers

By Lawrence, Elizabeth; Root, Elisabeth Dowling et al. | Demographic Research, July-December 2015 | Go to article overview

Residential Mobility in Early Childhood: Household and Neighborhood Characteristics of Movers and Non-Movers


Lawrence, Elizabeth, Root, Elisabeth Dowling, Mollborn, Stefanie, Demographic Research


1. Introduction

Research shows that residential mobility shapes child well-being. Children who stay in the same home have better behavioral and emotional health and educational achievement than their more mobile counterparts (Jelleyman and Spencer 2008; Leventhal and Newman 2010; Ziol-Guest and McKenna 2014). The mechanisms behind these associations include changes in social relationships such as friendship networks (South and Haynie 2004) and disruptions in institutional supports such as health insurance or medical facilities (Busacker and Kasehagen 2012). Complicating causal interpretation of observed associations are the many confounding factors that influence both mobility and well-being. For example, Dong and colleagues (2005) reported that adverse childhood experiences, such as childhood abuse, are associated with residential mobility and explain the effect of frequent moving on health risks. Controlling for selection is therefore important for determining the effects of residential mobility, since mobile and non-mobile families differ in many ways (Gasper, DeLuca, and Estacion 2010). This is particularly important because some studies find that mobility exerts an independent influence on child well-being (Pribesh and Downey 1999) that cannot be examined without properly controlling for selection bias.

Further, moving does not necessarily have negative consequences, as many families move for positive reasons, such as a new or better job or to have a child attend a chosen school. Prior research has found differential effects of mobility depending on neighborhood context, child's age/developmental period, and financial resources (Anderson, Leventhal, and Dupere 2014; Pettit 2004). Giving birth to a young child may precipitate a particular type of move, since this life course change can spur relocation efforts (Mulder and Hooimeijer 1999; Rabe and Taylor 2010). It is therefore important to examine mobility among young children separately from other groups.

Researchers usually operationalize mobility based on a short window of time prior to the interview, excluding the influence of moves earlier in life. Yet early development shapes later development (Willson, Shuey, and Elder 2007). Further, social influences show a cumulative process over time. Evidence points to the importance of childhood circumstances for adult health outcomes (Gruenewald et al. 2012; Haas 2008; Hayward and Gorman 2004). Examining mobility at the youngest ages is therefore crucial for understanding both the effects of mobility on child health and well-being and how residential mobility is influenced by a variety of individual, family, and neighborhood constraints.

However, we do not yet know who is moving in early childhood or the circumstances of movers and non-movers. Prior studies have used non-representative samples, cross-sectional data, or have focused on older children. This study seeks to understand young children's mobility in the United States through the use of longitudinal nationally representative data that describes families with children ages 05. We describe levels of mobility (defined by number of moves) across ages 0-5 and the family and neighborhood characteristics that are associated with these different levels. To our knowledge, this study is the first to examine early childhood residential mobility over time using a nationally representative sample. By describing mobility patterns across dynamic household and neighborhood characteristics, we provide context for future studies that seek to examine the effects of child residential mobility and health.

2. Methods

We used all waves of data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort (ECLS-B), which followed a nationally representative cohort of U.S. children born in 2001 at approximately 9 months, 2 years, 4 years, 5 years, and 6 years of age. Since the last wave of data only included a subsample of children who had not yet started kindergarten in the fourth wave, household and neighborhood information at kindergarten start (termed Wave K) was taken from either the fourth or fifth wave. …

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