Good Kids from Bad Neighborhoods: Successful Development in Social Context / Edition 1

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This is a study of successful youth development in poor, disadvantaged neighborhoods in Denver and Chicago - a study of how children living in the worst neighborhoods develop or fail to develop the values, competencies, and commitments that lead to a productive, healthy, and responsible adult life. While there is a strong focus on neighborhood effects, the study employs a multicontextual model to take into account the effects of other social contexts embedded in the neighborhood that also influence development. The unique and combined influence of the neighborhood, family, school, peer group, and individual attributes on developmental success is estimated. The view that growing up in a poor, disadvantaged neighborhood condemns one to a life of repeated failure and personal pathology is revealed as a myth, as most youth in these neighborhoods are completing the developmental tasks of adolescence successfully.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This book has numerous strenghts. As Richard Jessor, chair of the Research Network on Successful Adolescent Development, explains in the foreword, Good Kids offers an example of the new transdisciplinary research taht tackles a complex social problem from multiple perspectives. In moving beyond sociology's traditional focus on structural variables, such as social class, to identify the explanatory mechanissm that ccount for the effect of those structural variables on human lives, the researchers have contributed an important model for future development."
—Patricia T. Ashton

"The authors go beyond the one-dimensional approach as their work articulates and tests a framework for understanding the impact of multiple contexts on youth development...As they provide this important study in helping us understand youth development, they also push the field of social inquiry to consider the influence of multiple contexts on all aspects of life."
—Stephanie Cosner Berzin, Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521682213
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 7/31/2006
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.91 (d)

Meet the Author

Delbert S. Elliott is Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus and Research Professor at the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado. He was past president and Fellow of the Academy of Experimental Criminology. He was the Senior Science Editor for the Surgeon General's Report on Youth Violence in 2001 and the General Editor for Blueprints for the Violence Prevention Series of Monographs. He has published many books and is a member of The MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Adolescent Development.

Scott Menard received his BA from Cornell University and his PhD from the University of Colorado, Boulder, both in Sociology. He has published extensively in the areas of quantitative methods, statistics, criminology and delinquency and also in the areas of demography and development. His current research interests include the use of standardized coefficients in logistic regression analysis, the short and long term consequences of victimization, particularly in adolescence and the interrelationship between different types of substance use and illegal behavior.

Bruce Rankin is an assistant professor of Sociology at Koç University, Istanbul, Turkey, and a Research Fellow at the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He received his doctorate in sociology from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1993. Prior to his faculty appointment, he was the research coordinator of the Center for the Study of Urban Inequality at the University of Chicago and, later, a research associate at the Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program at Harvard University. His research has focused on various issues related to urban poverty and social policy.

Amanda Elliott is a research analyst in the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado. For the past seventeen years, she has been involved in longitudinal studies of child and adolescent development and domestic assault, and was the Field Director of the Denver Neighborhood Study. Her work also includes cross-national projects with researchers from Bremen, Germany examining the effects of training for the labor market and the effects of juvenile justice system processing on delinquent behavior. She is a co-author of an article in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency.

David Huizinga is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado and holds graduate degrees in mathematics and psychology. For over two decades he has been conducting basic and evaluation research on developmental life-span issues. He is the co-author of three books as well as several book chapters and numerous journal articles and government reports on issues surrounding the development of delinquency, drug use, and mental health.

William Julius Wilson is Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University. He is one of only 18 University Professors, the highest professional distinction for a Harvard faculty member. He joined the faculty at Harvard in July of 1996. Wilson has received 41 honorary degrees and was selected by Time Magazine as one of America's 25 Most Influential People. He is a recipient of the 1998 National Medal of Science, the highest scientific honor in the United States, and was awarded the Talcott Parsons Prize in the Social Sciences by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003.

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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
978-0-521-86357-5 - Good kids from bad neighborhoods - Successful development in social context - by Delbert S. Elliott, Scott Menard, Bruce Rankin, Amanda Elliott, David Huizinga and William Julius Wilson


Growing Up in Disadvantaged Neighborhoods


We have this one little guy, 13 years old...You can just see him, every day, trying to decide which is more glamorous, the Youth Council or the Foote Street Posse. The Foote Street Posse boys offer him five hundred dollars a week to be a lookout. All we offer is knowledge. They win, hands down, most every time.

Finnegan, Cold New World, 1998:26


There is widespread concern that the social fabric of American community life has deteriorated, and this breakdown in neighborhood quality is directly responsible for the high rates of youth crime, substance abuse, unemployment, teenage pregnancy, welfare dependence, and mental health problems that characterize many of our inner-city neighborhoods. The neighborhood is generally assumed to play an essential role in raising children, and when the strong interpersonal ties, shared socialization values and processes, and effective appropriation and utilization of community resources fail to materialize or develop in the neighborhood, children are put at risk for poordevelopmental outcomes and dysfunctional lifestyles. The saying, “It takes a village to raise a child,” captures this perspective on the importance of neighborhoods for a successful course of child and youth development.

   This is the perspective typically taken by youth and parents in the study reported in this book. For both, the neighborhood is seen as an important context that shapes family and peer activities and individual developmental outcomes. The following exchange took place in a focus group meeting in one of our Chicago study neighborhoods. The focus group leader asked the teens in the group to describe their neighborhood. The initial responses indicated that it was a place with a lot of abandoned buildings, gangs, and drug dealers. Then the conversation turned as follows:

   FG LEADER:  What else? Drugs. Gangs. Abandoned buildings.
   VOICE:  It’s not a very good place to raise children.
   FG LEADER:  Would the group agree with that? It’s not a good place to raise children?
   VOICE:  Yeah.
   FG LEADER:  Why is that?
   FEMALE:  There’s too many bad influence, too many drug dealers, too many...
   MALE:  Too much violence....
   FEMALE:  My little sister and brother already think the gangs are cute. They walk around trying to do gang handshakes...gang phrases.
   FG LEADER:  How old are they?
   FEMALE:  My little brother is 10, and my little sister just made 14.
   FG LEADER:  ...we’ve talked a little bit – actually a lot – about how hard it is being a teenager growing up here. Do you think it’s hard for your parents, also?
   voices:  Yes.
   FEMALE:  It’s hard because a lot of parents who do care about their kids, but know they’ve gone the wrong way, they have to worry about if their sons or daughters don’t come in at night if she’s gonna have to identify the body or what. She don’t know if the kids will come in alive or...
   FG LEADER:  So, it’s hard on them just because it’s so hard on you, and they’re all worried about you.
   FEMALE:  And they’re scared. They want better for us. But my parents can’t do any better. I mean, in terms of jobs, my parents can’t afford to live somewhere else....

   The youth who participated in the above focus group discussion tell us what it is like to live in Longmont,1 a poor disadvantaged inner-city neighborhood. Their poignant descriptions of the problems in their neighborhood clearly suggest that the odds of failure and adoption of dysfunctional lifestyles are greater for youth in such environments. When asked what comes to mind when they think of their neighborhood, the teenagers blurted out such things as abandoned buildings, drug dealers, gangs, violence, school dropouts, teen pregnancies, and the absence of community organizations. They also discussed the lack of security and the problem of safety in neighborhood schools, as well as the absence of parks and playgrounds in the neighborhood. It was also clear that the teenagers in this focus group discussion had a conception of what constitutes a “good” neighborhood. They mentioned ethnic diversity, positive organizations like the YMCA, adequate housing, and jobs to employ people – things that their community lacked.

   The focus group leader had to prompt the teenagers to think about things that were positive in their neighborhood. Several talked about the positive influence of some of the parents in the neighborhood. It appeared from their discussion that they believe their parents face a much greater challenge in raising children than do parents in more stable working- and middle-class neighborhoods, where attempts at normal child-rearing are not constantly undermined by social forces that interfere with a healthy course of child development. The teenagers in the focus group discussion all agreed that their community was not a good place for raising children. Their feelings are consistent with the views expressed by adult residents in other disadvantaged neighborhoods in this study. Our findings suggest that what many impoverished inner-city neighborhoods have in common is a general feeling among the adults that they have little control over their immediate environment, including the environment’s negative influence on their children.

   Nonetheless, despite the problems in neighborhoods like Longmont, many of the children living in high-poverty neighborhoods do in fact succeed in conventional terms and become productive and responsible adults. Our findings suggest that approximately half of youth living in high-poverty Denver neighborhoods were on a successful developmental trajectory. By understanding the factors that enable these youth to overcome the adversity they face, we can design more appropriate interventions and policies to maximize a successful course of child and youth development for all our children.


At present, relatively little is known about how adolescents overcome adversity in high-risk neighborhoods.2 Most neighborhood studies focus on the failures and pathologies of those living in poor neighborhoods. The primary objective of this study is to understand how some youth living in disadvantaged neighborhoods succeed when others do not. It is a study of success, not failure. But our focus is not solely on high-poverty neighborhoods such as Longmont. In order to fully comprehend the factors and processes that lead to successful adolescent outcomes in high-risk areas, one also needs to understand how and why adolescents in other neighborhoods succeed or fail.

   The fact is that many middle-class suburban neighborhoods do not have a recreation center, library, bank, or grocery store in their immediate neighborhood. Can the presence or absence of these institutional facilities, called for by the teens and parents in Longmont, explain the difference in the likelihood of success for neighborhood children? Many middle-class youth have access to these places only by virtue of their (or their parents or friends) access to cars, whereas this form of access is much less likely for families living in neighborhoods like Longmont. This suggests that the significant social contexts in middle-class communities may not be the neighborhood but the school, the nearest recreation center, and the other places where families gather and interact. Without the comparison with more affluent neighborhoods, the general role of neighborhood influences on child and youth development can not be established; nor can the possibility of differential effects by type of neighborhood be explored.

   Some high-poverty, disadvantaged neighborhoods have higher rates of successful adolescent development than others. Even poor neighborhoods differ substantially in the number and effectiveness of informal networks, access to conventional institutions, and the presence or absence of gangs and criminal organizations. These more proximate contextual differences make it easier (or harder) for families and peer groups to function in positive ways and for youth to grow up and become responsible adults. Moreover, neighborhood research has shown that these emergent neighborhood properties change over time and have different effects on different age groups.3 In short, there is a good deal of variation across neighborhoods, both poor and affluent, in the organizational structures, informal processes, cultures, and lifestyles that emerge from the interactions of residents. The extent to which these features of neighborhood life are determined by the physical and social ecology of the neighborhood, and the role the neighborhood ecology and emergent organization and culture play in promoting a successful development, has yet to be established. We will review the available theory and research on neighborhood effects that supports this conclusion in subsequent chapters.

   Our focus in this book is on the neighborhood as a sociogeographic place that provides the context for individual experiences, group interaction, and social development. The social context embodies the structural and cultural constraints and opportunities that influence developmental outcomes. These constraints and opportunities include those that enhance or impede participation in social institutions, that provide or deny access to institutional resources (such as schools, religious organizations, businesses, civic groups, recreational facilities, museums, the arts, and other enrichment programs). These constraints and opportunities also determine the extent to which adults in the neighborhood are integrated by a set of shared obligations, expectations, and social networks – factors that affect the degree of formal and informal social control in the neighborhood and the types of values and behavior that are promoted and rewarded.

   As the teens in the Longmont focus group noted, the socialization patterns of parents are likely influenced by the constraints and opportunities encountered in their neighborhoods. We expect that average parents will have more success in raising their children when they reside in neighborhoods where strong institutions support and sustain their efforts. Styles of socialization may differ depending on the neighborhood and these differences may result in different social outcomes for children. Moreover, styles and strategies of socialization that are effective in middle-class suburban neighborhoods may be less effective in promoting the welfare of children in poor inner-city neighborhoods. In short, by focusing on the neighborhood as a sociogeographic setting, we shall see how it both directly and indirectly influences the developmental course of children living there.

   Our focus goes beyond the search for neighborhood contextual effects. We propose to examine the combined contextual effects of the neighborhood and the other major social contexts that influence child and youth development – the family, school, and adolescent peer group. The explanatory model for this study is thus a multicontextual model in which critical features of each of these contexts are identified and both individual and combined contextual effects are considered. In this multicontextual model, the effects of neighborhoods may turn out to be direct, indirect, insignificant, or even spurious. If we find significant neighborhood effects, we expect that families, schools and peer groups will mediate or moderate a significant proportion of these ecological effects on development.


There are important differences of opinion about the significance of neighborhoods as socialization contexts and the advisability of mounting neighborhood-based initiatives to help at-risk children and families. The evidence for neighborhood-level differences in rates of crime, teen pregnancy, educational attainment, health problems, child abuse, and neglect is compelling. Clearly, there are differences between neighborhoods on rates of involvement in these behaviors.4 The same can not be said for the evidence that neighborhoods matter much for individual-level outcomes, that is, that the level of poverty in the neighborhood accounts for whether individual residents do or do not become involved in these behaviors, once ascribed individual traits (race/ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and gender), family resources, socialization practices, and the influence of other more proximate social contexts have been taken into account.5 Moreover, there are major differences in the conclusions from ethnographic accounts of neighborhood influences on individual development and lifestyles and survey studies examining these individual-level effects while controlling for other relevant factors; ethnographic studies suggest relatively strong neighborhood effects and survey research suggests very modest ones.

   Some have argued that because of the development of mass transportation, nearly universal access to cars, TV, film, videos, the internet, and the emergence of huge retail outlets (Wal Mart, K-Mart, Lowe’s, and Home Depot) as well as the service industry, the physical, geographical neighborhood is no longer the functional neighborhood. Modern contexts for family- and peer-group interaction are the workplace and special interest locations (schools and school-based activities, recreational centers, churches, concerts, shopping centers, and video arcades). From this perspective, physical neighborhoods are no longer meaningful socialization contexts.

   In the light of these differences in findings about the importance of neighborhoods, there is reason to question whether it takes a village to raise a child and whether neighborhood revitalization efforts are likely to be effective.6 There is a clear need for further research to determine (1) if neighborhoods are still meaningful socialization contexts, in both our modern suburban areas and our high-poverty inner cities; (2) if so, how it is that physical and ecological characteristics influence the social organization and culture of the neighborhood; and (3) how these emergent neighborhood characteristics operate to shape family, school, and peer group socialization processes and content, and directly or indirectly contribute to a successful or unsuccessful course of individual development. Answers to these questions should shed light on the current debates about when and how to intervene in neighborhoods to improve youth developmental outcomes.


This study of neighborhoods differs from most earlier studies in several important ways. First, most studies of the ecology of the neighborhood have focused narrowly on the compositional effects of concentrated poverty. Without question, differences in socioeconomic composition are a critical feature of neighborhoods, one that has been linked to variation in many child development outcomes. However, the neighborhood ecology is more varied and complex than is captured by this one dimension. There are both theoretical and practical reasons for considering other compositional characteristics, if we are to gain a better understanding of the general ecology of the neighborhood, and how it drives the dynamics of growing up. The residential stability of the neighborhood, for example, turns out to be as important as poverty for some developmental outcomes in this study. Our conceptualization and measurement of neighborhood ecology is thus multidimensional and we demonstrate that the classification of neighborhoods as good or bad places for raising children based on these multiple ecological dimensions does a better job of accounting for neighborhood differences in development than does poverty alone.

   We also include a measure of the physical environment when examining how the neighborhood ecology influences families and youth. While the early work of Park and Burgess (1924), Shaw and McKay (1942), and others in the Chicago School7 considered the physical conditions in the neighborhood as an important dimension of its ecology, more recent neighborhood research on youth development often ignores this feature.8 Again, we find that physical differences between neighborhoods turn out to be more important than concentrated poverty for explaining differences in some child-development outcomes. One distinguishing feature of this study is thus the multidimensional conceptualization and measurement of the neighborhood ecology as a physical and social context where people live and interact.

   Second, relatively few neighborhood studies have actually identified and measured the specific structures and processes that link the social compositional and physical features of the neighborhood ecology to family socialization patterns, school quality, types of peer groups, and child development outcomes. We develop and test a complex model of neighborhood effects. This model specifies how features of the neighborhood ecology influence social interaction processes in the neighborhood to form the specific informal organization and culture that emerges. This model can also be used to show how this emergent organization and culture shape the socialization processes and development of youth living in the neighborhood, either directly or indirectly.

   Third, while our primary focus is on the neighborhood context and its influence on youth development, our full model is a multicontextual model of development that includes measures of the family, school, and peer contexts, as well as the neighborhood context. We thus consider how the neighborhood ecology, organization, and culture influence family socialization processes, the quality of schools and the types of peer groups emerging in the neighborhood, and how these multiple contexts combine to shape developmental outcomes for neighborhood youth. Few studies of child development have considered the complex interplay of these multiple socialization settings. Most consider only the family, although a few include child-care settings and/or early school contexts.9 We test this multicontextual model at both the neighborhood level and the individual level with good success.

   Finally, the developmental outcomes for this study are different from many earlier studies that have focused primarily on how concentrated neighborhood poverty contributes to the social pathologies and arrested development of the poor – parental neglect, dysfunctional families, unemployment, mental and physical mental health problems, school dropout, delinquent gangs, crime, violence, drugs, and other indicators of developmental failure. In contrast, this is a study of successful development. Specifically, it is a study of how youth growing up in the worst neighborhoods, as judged by the neighborhood’s social composition and physical ecology, develop the skills, values, commitments, and competencies necessary for a healthy, productive life and avoid the entanglements of health-compromising behavior and lifestyles that often derail a positive course of development for youth living in these neighborhoods. In this respect, this study follows the line of inquiry initiated by Reckless and his colleagues in their classic article, The Good Boy in a High Delinquency Area,10 although their theoretical perspective was quite limited and has virtually no overlap with the explanatory model developed and tested here. One of the surprises in this study is that a majority of youth from the worst neighborhoods appear to be on track for a successful transition into adulthood. Our specific objective is to understand how this occurs. Better neighborhoods do have better developmental success rates, but living in an ecologically poor or disadvantaged neighborhood does not preclude high-quality parenting, good schools, supportive peer networks, and good individual development outcomes. Moreover, dysfunctional social contexts do not cluster to the extent often envisioned by social scientists.


We will justify the claims made here in subsequent chapters where the research on neighborhood, family, school, and peer group influences on child and youth development is reviewed. The next chapter will describe the study, its specific objectives, critical definitions, data sources, sampling strategy, and study measures. Special attention is given to the problem of conceptualizing and identifying neighborhoods as a unit of analysis. In Chapters 3– 8, we provide reviews of existing research on each social context and build our explanatory model of multicontextual effects, starting with the most distal context (neighborhood ecology in Chapter 3), then adding the family context, the school context, and finally, the peer context in subsequent chapters. Chapter 9 presents the test of the full multicontextual model, with all contexts and individual attributes considered simultaneously. In each of the findings chapters, we consider contextual influences on developmental success at both the neighborhood level and the individual level. Chapter 10 highlights our major findings and discusses the implications for program development and policy formation. We conclude that chapter with some recommendations for future research on successful youth development.

   With the exception of the final chapter, each of the chapters begins with a synopsis of the information found in that chapter. The reader can quickly determine what will be covered in that chapter and decide whether or not to read the detailed account. It is possible to skip right to the last two chapters, but this would result in missing some important findings that are masked when all of the contexts and individual attributes are included in a single model. To facilitate a smooth reading, references are largely confined to notes and technical information is found either in the notes or Appendixes. For those with technical skills, taking the time to read these notes and examine the tables in the Appendixes will provide a more detailed understanding of our findings and interpretations.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

List of Tables and Figures vi

Foreword Richard Jessor x

Acknowledgments xvii

1 Growing Up in Disadvantaged Neighborhoods 1

2 Growing Up in Denver and Chicago: The MacArthur Neighborhood Study 11

3 Good and Bad Neighborhoods for Raising Children 33

4 The Effects of Growing Up in a Bad Neighborhood: Initial Findings 55

5 Critical Dimensions of Neighborhood Organization and Culture 101

6 The Effects of Neighborhood Organization and Culture 129

7 Family Influences: Managing Disadvantage and Promoting Success 161

8 School Climate and Types of Peer Groups 203

9 What Matters Most for Successful Youth Development? 243

10 Successful Development in Disadvantaged Neighborhoods 274

Appendix A 305

Appendix B 349

References 353

Author Index 381

Subject Index 388

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