The impact of housing on children’s future “economic status”: Go beyond headlines to interrogate research design

Chinatown city building

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This review is based solely on the three local news reports of a research study by the National University of Singapore. I was not able to locate the original publication. Let me know if you have access to a link or a copy, and a more thorough review will follow!

Three newspapers – ST, TODAY, and BT – reported on the same research study by the National University of Singapore on intergenerational “housing wealth”, yet they all failed to interrogate the design and findings of the study (in this vein, to ask the researchers tougher questions about their research) or to question the proposed causal mechanisms linking a Singaporean’s housing or neighbourhood in childhood to his or her future “economic status” (represented by housing wealth).

The reported findings can be summarised in five observations and claims:

  1. Children born to low-income families between 1965 and 1984 have upward mobility in housing wealth, those born to middle-income families are worse off than their parents in housing type, and those born to wealthy families are also worse off but are still close to the housing wealth of their parents;
  2. Children of low-income families benefit from housing grants and accessibility to high-quality public schools;
  3. Those of middle-income families are likewise incentivised to purchase public housing even though they grew up in private ones, and they may not necessarily enrol in top schools located in other neighbourhoods;
  4. Those of wealthy families have little room to surpass their parents; as well as
  5. Upward intergenerational housing wealth mobility is concentrated in new towns like Jurong West, Pasir Ris, and Punggol because of housing schemes and subsidies.

These findings are not inherently problematic or even surprising. However, some scepticism over how the research was conducted would empower journalists and the public to not take the results as gospel, while challenging the researchers to think about limitations as well as further studies.

First, the researchers defined low-income families as those in the bottom 60th percentile (in terms of the prices of their housing, a specific detail mentioned by TODAY but not ST or BT), middle-income as those in the 60th to 80th percentile ranks, and the wealthy as those in the top 20th percentile.

Would the findings differ if those in the bottom 60th percentile were further subdivided into two or three more categories (that is, do children from poorest of families experience the same upward mobility)? Or if other measures of income and wealth were used? While it is the case that the wealth of most Singaporeans are locked in housing, checking for different measures should make for more robust conclusions.

Second, what does upward or downward mobility entail? Does it mean moving to a house which is priced higher or lower than one’s childhood house, respectively? Or movement between public and private housing? Are housing prices or size the only consideration: Would moving from a three- to four-room flat – or any price- or size-based upgrade – be considered upward mobility? Even more conceptually, did the researchers control for marital status or the number of children? An individual who grew up in a middle-income household with many siblings in a private apartment might not necessarily consider it a “downgrade” to move into a two-room flat by themselves.

And ultimately, what is the evidence for the causal explanations connecting one’s childhood housing to their “economic status” (which should be defined more narrowly as housing wealth)? With school access and its purported effect on mobility for instance – which ostensibly “influences Singapore to have one of the highest level[s] of mobility among lower-tiered households” – the researchers could show differences between those low-income children who attended higher-ranked schools and those who did not. In other words, beyond the headlines and the top-level findings, there should be greater attention on how these conclusions were reached in the first place, before considering their implications for public policy.

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