Why neighborhood safety matters

Having a safe neighborhood is important for positive child and youth development.[1] Neighborhoods that are unsafe are associated with high rates of infant mortality and low birthweight, juvenile delinquency, high school dropout, child abuse and neglect,[2] and poor motor and social development among pre-school children.[3] Conversely, children who live in highly supportive neighborhoods have positive outcomes such as stronger connections with family, peers and community, and greater participation in out-of-school time programs, volunteering, and religious services.[4]

Neighborhoods with high levels of crime are often densely populated, mixed use (businesses and residences in the same area) areas, with concentrated poverty, a transient population, a high proportion of single-parent households, and dilapidated buildings.[5],[6],[7] Children and adolescents living in neighborhoods characterized by crime or disorganization are more likely to become victims of violent crime[8] and to perpetrate acts of violence.[9] Children who witness crime and violence are more likely to experience social and emotional problems such as aggression, stress, and withdrawal, as well as delinquency and low school achievement.[10],[11]

Parents who report that their neighborhood is unsafe may limit their children’s time in outdoor independent play, which can decrease the child’s opportunities for spontaneous play and exploration.  However, such restrictions may also result in better social behavior because of increased parental supervision.[12] Children of parents who believe their neighborhood is unsafe may also be less likely to engage in physical activity [13] and more likely to be overweight.[14]

Trends in neighborhood safety

In 2011/12, 13 percent of children lived in neighborhoods that were never or only sometimes safe, according to parents’ report, while 30 percent were in neighborhoods described as usually safe, and 57 percent in neighborhoods that were always safe.  The percentage of children living in neighborhoods that parents report as always safe increased from 2003 to 2011/12, while the percentage of children living in neighborhoods reported as usually, sometimes, or never safe decreased.  However, most of the decrease was between 2003 and 2007. (Appendix 1)

Differences by race/Hispanic origin[15]107_fig1

Perceived neighborhood safety increased from 2003 to 2011/12 for each racial/ethnic group, though disparities remain. Progress between 2007 and 2011/12 were greatest among blacks and among those who are neither white, black, nor Hispanic.  There was no significant difference between 2007 and 2011/12 among Hispanics. In 2011/12, black children were most likely to live in neighborhoods reported to be never or sometimes safe.  About one in four black and Hispanic children (23 percent in each case) lived in such neighborhoods in 2011/12, compared with less than one in ten white children (seven percent). (Figure 1) The percentage of children reported to be in an “always safe” neighborhood was highest for whites (61 percent), than for Hispanics (52 percent) and blacks (49 percent).  (Appendix 1)

Differences by family structure

Children living in single-mother households are nearly twice as likely to live in a neighborhood that is described as never or only sometimes safe as are children living with two biological or adoptive parents (21 versus 11 percent in 2011), and about one-and-a-half times as likely to do so as children living with one biological parent and one stepparent (14 percent).  (Appendix 1)

Differences by nativity107_fig2

Foreign-born children and native-born children with foreign-born parents are about twice as likely as the children of native-born parents to live in a neighborhood that is described as never or only sometimes safe (21, 23, and 12 percent, respectively, in 2007, the latest data available). However, children in the three groups are about equally likely to live in a neighborhood described as always safe. (Figure 2)

Differences by neighborhood support107_fig3

Parents who reported that people in the neighborhood help each other out were more likely to report that their children live in safe neighborhoods.  Only six percent of children whose parents “definitely agreed” that people in the neighborhood help each other out lived in unsafe neighborhoods, compared with 30 percent of children whose parents “somewhat disagreed” that people help each other out, and 46 percent who “definitely disagreed.”  (Figure 3)

Differences by poverty level107_fig4

Children living at or below the poverty line are more than three times as likely as children living above 200 percent of the poverty level to live in a neighborhood described as never or only sometimes safe (26 and 7 percent, respectively).  Those living in families with incomes above but less than twice the poverty line fall in between, with 16 percent in neighborhoods never or only sometimes safe. However, those living below and just above the poverty line are equally likely to live in a neighborhood described as always safe (53 percent for each), but parents of those living above 200 percent of the poverty line are more likely than those less affluent to describe their neighborhood as always safe (60 percent).  (Figure 4)

Other estimates

State and local estimates

2003, 2007, and 2011/12 state estimates for neighborhood safety (parent report) are available from the National Survey of Children’s Health at the Data Resource Center for Child & Adolescent Health.

How to increase neighborhood safety

Two very different approaches to improving neighborhood safety are here illustrated by studies which both showed some
positive results.  One was an evaluation of the “Moving to Opportunity” (MTO) program, where through random assignment some parents were given housing vouchers to move out of public housing to lower-poverty neighborhoods.  They tended to move to neighborhoods with conditions better suited to positive development, such as a lower concentration of poverty, less adult unemployment, and more adults with college degrees.  Children in the MTO group performed at only slightly higher levels overall in their new schools, compared with children whose families did not receive vouchers.  However, there was no evidence of improvement in reading scores, math scores, behavior, or school engagement compared with
the control group.[16]

Another approach focuses on what makes for safer neighborhoods.  Cohesive, stable neighborhoods often have what is called “collective efficacy.”  This is when the people in a neighborhood think of themselves as a group and have shared norms for the behaviors occurring in, and the appearance of their neighborhood.  Collective efficacy, in turn, is associated with less visible disorder (trash on the streets, graffiti, etc.), and violent incidents, even when taking into account demographic characteristics, perceived neighborhood disorder, and previous neighborhood crime rates.[17]

Data & appendices

Data Source

Child Trends’ original analyses of data from the 2003, 2007, and 2011/12 National Survey of Children’s Health.

Raw Data Source

National Survey of Children’s Health.





This indicator is based on the parent-reported question, “How often do you feel the child is safe in your community or neighborhood?”


[1]Evans, G. (2006). Child development and the physical environment.  Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 423-451.

[2]Sampson, R. J., Morenoff, J. D., Gannon-Rowley, T. (2002). Assessing ‘neighborhood effects’: Social processes and new directions in research. Annual Review of Sociology, 28, 443-478.

[3]To, T., Cadarette, S. M., Liu, Y. (2001). Biological, social, and environmental correlates of preschool development. Child
Care Health Development, 27(2), 187-200.

[4]Wilkenfeld, B., Moore, K. A., Lippman, L. (2008). Neighborhood support and children’s connectedness. Washington, DC: Child Trends from https://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Child_Trends-2008_02_05_ConnectednessFS.pdf.

[5]Sampson, R. J., Groves, W. B. (1989). Community structure and crime: Testing social-disorganization theory. American Journal of Sociology, 94(4), 774-802.

[6]Stark, R. (1987). Deviant places: A theory of the ecology of crime. Criminology, 25(4), 893-909.

[7]Sampson, R. J., Raudenbush, S. W. (1999). Systematic social observation of public spaces: A new look at disorder in urban
neighborhoods. American Journal of Sociology, 105(3), 603-651.

[8]Kendrick, D., Mulyaney, C., Burton, P., Watson, M. (2005). Relationships between child, family and neighborhood characteristics and childhood injury: A cohort study. Social Science & Medicine, 60,

[9]Herrenkohl, T. I., Maguin, E., Hill, K. G., Hawkins, J. D., Abbott, R. D., & Catalano, R. F. (2000). Developmental risk factors for youth violence. Journal of Adolescent Health, 26(3), 176-186.

[10]Reich, K., Culross, P. L., & Behrman, R. E. (2002). Children, youth, and gun violence: Analysis and recommendations. Future of Children, 12(2), 5-23.

[11]For more background information on children’s exposure to violence see: Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Ormrod, R., Hamby, S., & Kracke, K. (2009). Children’s exposure to violence: A comprehensive national survey [Electronic Version]. Retrieved December 22, 2009 fromhttp://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/227744.pdf.

[12]Parke, R. D., O’Neil, R. L. (1999). Op. cit.

[13]Beets, M. W., Foley, J. T. (2008). Association of father involvement and neighborhood quality with kindergarteners’ physical activity: A multilevel structural equation model. American Journal of Health Promotion, 22(3), 195-203.

[14]Lumeng, J. C., Appugliese, D., Cabral, H. J., Bradley, R. H., Zuckerman, B. (2006). Neighborhood safety and overweight status in children. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 160(1), 25-31.

[15]Hispanics may be any race. Estimates for whites and blacks do not include Hispanics.

[16]Sanbonmatsu, L., Kling, J. R., Duncan, G. J., Brooks-Gunn, J. (2007). New kids on the block: Results from the Moving to
Opportunity experiment. Cambridge, MA: Educationnext fromhttp://educationnext.org/files/ednext_20074_60.pdf.

[17]Sampson, R. J., Raudenbush, S. W. (1999). Op. cit.

Suggested Citation:

Child Trends. (2013). Neighborhood safety. Available at: https://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=neighborhood-safety