THE IMPACT OF LOCAL CRIME ON CHILDREN: Evidence from pupils’ achievements in London

16 Apr 2019

Living in a London neighbourhood with high levels of crime damages the learning processes of pupils in primary schools, according to research by Elisa Facchetti, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference at the University of Warwick in April 2019.

Her study evaluates the impact of exposure to local crime on pupils’ test scores. In particular, the author compares achievements at the end of primary schools of pupils living in higher crime areas versus less criminal areas. She finds that on average an increase in local crime decreases reading or mathematics test scores at age 11 by around 1 point.

Strikingly, pupils show a diminishing marginal sensitivity to crime: the more they are used to crime, the less they suffer from it. For kids living in affluent areas with low crime levels as well as coming from wealthier backgrounds, being exposed to more crime decreases test scores by up to 3 points for reading and 6 points for mathematics. This evidence is in line with a story of adaptation: pupils who are less accustomed to criminal acts experience greater learning losses.

Crime reduction is high on the public policy agenda, not least because of the large economic and social benefits it brings. The public debate has devoted much attention to quantifying the direct consequences of crime, in terms of victimisation, policing and the judiciary system. But beyond its direct costs, indirect costs borne by society have the potential to affect a much larger share of the population.

Especially in recent years, London has experienced a sharp rise in crime: since 2014, crime has started to increase again at a yearly rate of 3%, after more than a decade of decline. In this context, a comprehensive understanding of the indirect social costs of crime can inform a wide range of policies aimed at crime reduction.

This research examines the impact of exposure to crime at an early stage of education. Specifically, the study answers the following question: does exposure to crime affect children’s performance at school?

Pupils in London are chronically exposed to violence: for example, in 2015, 95% of pupils lived in a block where at least one violent crime occurred, while half of them were exposed to at least 70 violent crimes (such as assaults or sexual offences).

Crucially, living in a criminal environment is associated with emotional and cognitive stress as well as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Stress can reduce working memory and increase cognitive distractions that lead students to perform poorly on tests.

Perhaps surprisingly, given its relevance for policy-makers, this study is the first to evaluate the consequences of exposure to crime at early age. This stage of life is key for many long-term outcomes given that external shocks at this age are more likely to affect the development of socio-emotional skills and to impair pupils’ learning process and performance during exams.

The study uses restricted information on where pupils live and where they go to school, together with geo-located criminal records collected by the police. It is therefore possible to quantify exactly the crime occurring around pupils’ homes.

According to the calculations, on average 500 crimes occur during an academic year in an area of 500-metres radius around pupils’ residences, while in the most deprived areas, this figure goes up to 800 episodes.

The empirical analysis compares the test scores of pupils attending the same school but living in different blocks, with different degrees of exposure to crime. Exploiting the great level of details of the data, the research compares pupils with similar characteristics, living in similar locations and going to the same school. The author uses data on house prices and house characteristics to control for local amenities in the area where pupils live.

Elisa Facchetti

Queen Mary University of London | e.facchetti@qmul.ac.uk