Move to Better Housing Has Opposite Effects on Girls’, Boys’ Binge Drinking

When a family moves from a high- to a low-poverty neighborhood, the move ought to help adolescents adopt less risky behaviors. But whether it does or not may depend on the child’s gender.

In a new study led by University of Minnesota researcher Theresa L. Osypuk, Ph.D., girls who moved to better neighborhoods reduced their binge drinking, but boys increased theirs, compared to comparable adolescents who remained behind in high-poverty public housing.

This result is in line with previous work on other mental health and risky behavior outcomes, and likely reflects different social pressures on, or different social connections for, girls and boys that may differ from pressures on adults.

“As most alcohol disorders in adulthood originate in adolescence, it is imperative to focus on childhood and family origins,” said Osypuk, a professor in the School of Public Health’s Division of Epidemiology and Community Health and a member of the U of M’s Minnesota Population Center. “Understanding how neighborhood context contributes to risky behaviors in adolescents is important, because neighborhoods pattern other fundamental causes of health and behavior, such as social relationships, access to alcohol, and exposure to violent crime.”

The work was published September 26, 2018, in the journal Addiction.

Clear Differences

While many studies have looked at alcohol use in different environments, the studies were static snapshots, incapable of showing how a change in environment affects personal behavior.

Instead, the researchers drew on data from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program. In an MTO study, low-income families in high-poverty public housing volunteered to be randomly assigned to one of two groups: those that received Section 8 housing vouchers that allowed them to rent private apartments in low-poverty areas, and a control group that stayed in public housing.

“Families in the first MTO group moved to better neighborhoods characterized by lower neighborhood poverty, better neighborhood social systems—such as improved collective efficacy, safety, and less neighborhood disorder and crime—and improved natural features, like tree cover,” noted Osypuk.

She and her colleagues analyzed self-reports from 2,829 adolescents aged 12–19 who had been in the study between four and seven years. When it came to binge drinking (five or more drinks on the same occasion in the previous 30 days), the two groups showed sharp gender differences.

The likelihood of binge drinking was 2.1 percent for girls who had moved to better neighborhood, compared to 4.3 percent in controls. For boys, the figure was 2.5 percent in controls but 5.5 percent in those who moved. In other words, the risk was halved for girls but doubled for boys.

Not So Clear Reasons

The reasons for this striking difference can be surmised but not yet proved. One possibility: When stressed by a move, girls may employ more effective coping strategies, while boys may rely more on excessive alcohol use.

Also, research elsewhere found that parental support, attachment, and control was associated with less drinking in girls but more in boys. That difference, the authors suggested, could mean that such parenting helps girls resist peer pressure, but boys could interpret more support and discipline as threats to autonomy.

“To the extent that MTO induced differential changes in these parental factors, this may explain our findings,” Osypuk’s team wrote.

But Osypuk also pointed out how a change in neighborhood—absent any change in parenting—could help girls, but not boys, abstain: Girls who moved out of high-poverty neighborhoods reported reduced threats of sexual violence and predation by older boys and men. Reducing their fear may have reduced their need to cope with it by binge drinking. 

For boys, a move may have upended their social status.

“If boys binge drank to integrate into the social hierarchy of their new neighborhoods, or to cope with a decline in their social status, this could explain our pattern of adverse effects,” said Osypuk. “What we do know from these findings is that boys, particularly boys in adolescence when they move, may need additional support to be successful in housing voucher programs. More research is needed to explore what specific social mechanisms account for these patterns.”