Context and Poverty: Mental Health

An observation about American political life that leaves me perplexed and saddened is that we, as a society, seem to ignore the influence of context on individuals. I generally consider “context” in this discussion to mean factors both internal and external to the individual over which they have no control. This observation is most readily detected in debates surrounding poverty in which some argue that the impoverished are responsible for their plight. Yet, contextual factors are strong. For instance, perhaps two children have similar medical conditions that affect school performance but only the family of child A can afford insurance. Child B may not have the same educational opportunities later due to interference from their untreated ailment. Loss of educational opportunities may, in turn, leave child B vulnerable to financial strain or extended poverty. This is an extreme hypothetical case, but we can all find less salient examples of the influence of contextual factors if we are honest about our own lives.

There exist tangled webs of relationships and befuddling patterns of causation that surround the development and maintenance of poverty. To explore this may induce headaches, but it is worth doing. Why, you might ask? If we fully reject the influence of context and instruct the impoverished to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” then we write them off as a loss and do not feel compelled to help. This is misguided at best and inhumane at worst. Yet, intuitively we know that contextual factors are not the only ones involved. Reality lies somewhere between these extremes. Exploration of this issue through research allows us to better understand the complex nature of poverty and to develop more effective ways of addressing this social ill. I am planning on posting multiple times regarding this issue, but I thought that I would start by examining mental health and poverty.

A social gradient in mental and physical health exists (Reiss, 2013), which means that health status depends on socioeconomic status such that the poorest citizens have the worst health. Unfortunately, this phenomenon can be observed around the world in both poor and rich nations (World Health Organization, 2014). Please see the graph below for an example of the social gradient. It shows self-reported health status by income for the state and select cities. The data in this graph come from the Massachusetts Community Health Information Profile (MassCHIP), which is managed by the Massachusetts Department of Health.

Consistent with the social gradient, research suggests that poverty-related stress increases the risk for mental illness and that severe mental illness increases the risk of experiencing poverty (DeCarlo Santiago, Kaltman, & Miranda, 2013). The former illustrates the power of the external context of poverty (e.g., increased stress, lack of social support) over the individual, and the latter underscores the impact of “internal context.” Again, I define “internal context” as an attribute of the individual over which they have no control. Moreover, this bi-directional relationship suggests a vicious cycle in which an individual could easily become trapped in poverty. This may have the strongest effect on children in poverty, as development of a mental illness as a child would likely have lifelong negative effects. What can research tell us about the social gradient in mental health in children?

Reiss (2013) reviewed studies published in either English or German that examined the relationship between low socioeconomic status (SES) and mental health issues in individuals between the ages of four and 18. Of the 55 studies reviewed, 52 found an inverse relationship between SES and mental health such that children experiencing poverty were two to three times more likely to develop mental health issues than their peers. Sadly, the review also found that the gradient was strongest in early childhood. Importantly, mental health problems were reduced by an increase in SES, suggesting that societal intervention can be beneficial to children in poverty. Thus, we can short-circuit the bi-directional relationship mentioned above.

In sum, there are complex relationships surrounding the issue of poverty in America. While we often downplay the role of context in our political debates, it is an influential force in the generation and perpetuation of poverty. Development of a mental illness is not a choice, but rather the result of an intricate set of interactions between genetic predispositions and physical and social context. The social context of poverty contributes to the development of mental illness, but mental illness itself is a contextual factor in the social condition of poverty. This bi-directional relationship can be overcome, which has strong and positive implications for efforts to raise children out of poverty.

-Jason Wright

DeCarlo Santiago, C., Kaltman, S., & Miranda, J. (2013). Poverty and mental health: How do low-income adults and children are in psychotherapy? Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 69, 115-126. doi: 10.1002/jclp.21951

MassCHIP, Massachusetts Department of Health. (2014). Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System: General health status. Retrieved from

Reiss, F. (2013). Socioeconomic inequalities and mental health problems in children and adolescents: A systematic review. Social Science and Medicine, 90, 24-31. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2013.04.026

Poverty Demographics for Fall River & New Bedford, Massachusetts

Poverty, like many other economic phenomena, does not affect all population sub-groups equally. Historically marginalized populations like racial minorities, women and youth are often disproportionately affected by poverty. This is especially true in Southcoast Massachusetts cities Fall River and New Bedford.

Data from the US Census Bureau shows that 23.2% of Fall River and 21.6% of New Bedford residents live below the poverty line. However, in Fall River, 36% of youth live in poverty, and in New Bedford, 31.1% of youth live in poverty. The highest poverty rates are among Hispanics (59.7% in FR and 39.9% in NB) and single mothers of 3 or 4 children (77.8% in FR and 72% in NB).

The charts below present poverty data by race, family type and age group, gathered from the American Community Survey’s 2008-2012 5-year estimates. The percentages depicted represent varying rates of poverty among different demographic groups that compose a portion of total city population.




image(4)                                  *High margin of error for families with 5+ children, small sample size



*Very high margin of error for families with 5+ children, small sample size, not included




Data comes from the US Census Bureau, American Fact Finder. 2008-2012 American Community Survey 5-year Estimates. Access at

View data tables below.

Read more

Acushnet Ave Economic Impact Project Update

After the first meeting of the steering committee, we are moving on to the next phase in our study of Acushnet Avenue’s economy. For early September, our research team is drafting a survey to be distributed to business owners in the Acushnet Avenue commercial corridor. After incorporating helpful comments from our colleagues at the CEDC, who have extensive knowledge of the Avenue’s business climate, we will begin surveying business owners. A major challenge is keeping the survey brief enough to be manageable for busy owners to complete in a short time, but also extensive enough to get an understanding of the challenges facing businesses in the area, where they get materials and employees, their working capital, earnings, access to technology, and opportunities for growth and future investment. Hoping both for a large response rate and meaningful answers from those who do respond, we will open the survey period later this month and conclude in mid-October. 

Since the report will also examine the role place plays in the Acushnet Avenue economy, we have contacted New Bedford’s Office Housing and Community Development. Eddie Bates is hard at work analyzing GIS information so we can have better understanding of the physical and built environment of the Avenue and it’s side streets. The data we receive from Housing and Community Development will show the location of trees, street lighting, public spaces, benches, and give us a detailed look at the housing density surrounding the commercial corridor. The office will also be aiding us as we investigate occupancy and vacancy rates. I’m very interested to see if we can determine vacancy by floor, as well as by building. Although getting street level space occupied is still a challenge for building owners along the Avenue, upper level tenants (whether mixed-income residential or commercial) will be key in securing long-term vitality for the neighborhood.

As the survey period wraps up, I will be going over Census and business records for the study area. With this analysis, I am hoping to show how the make up of the neighborhood’s residents and businesses has changed over time. Culling through the wealth of information we obtained from the ReferenceUSA historical business database, I have already noticed an increase over the last five years in grocery stores serving the needs of Central and Latin American immigrants.

Check back in for updates on the survey process and on our one-on-one discussions with steering committee members.

July project update

Here’s a rundown of our projects and tasks for July:

1. Friends Academy/Center for Education Innovation (CEI) evaluation

We recently wrapped up a survey of elementary school teachers across the New Bedford Public Schools in order to determine the degree to which their feedback about things like technology, collaboration, professional development, and instruction is different than their peers who are working with CEI. We’re also crunching numbers to learn about the impact of CEI’s program on the performance of the students of participating teachers.

2. LifeWork Project

We’ll be writing the first year evaluation report at the end of this month, a report that will document the impact this program has had on participants’ academic performance, career paths, finances, and well-being.

3. New Bedford Regeneration Committee

We’re also approaching the report-writing stage of this project. The report will outline a set of action steps recommended by committee members for regenerating the economy of the city and the region.

4. Health Data SouthCoast

The network of organizations that supported our development of a website that provides easy access to regional and municipal health data is getting ready to publicly launch the site, so we won’t preclude their efforts here. All we’ll say is that it’s ready to go!

5. Taunton HOPE VI

We’re conducting our third and final resident focus group tonight, with the goal of learning about how the program has impacted residents’ abilities to enroll in job training programs and access employment opportunities. Next, we’ll go about updating data to compare current metrics to 2012 baselines in the areas of housing, economy, socioeconomic status, and demographics.

6. NEW: Acushnet Avenue commercial corridor study

Thanks to a just-awarded grant from the Garfield Foundation, we’ll be spending the next six months studying New Bedford’s Acushnet Avenue commercial corridor and the degree to which it influences the local economy. This project will involve data collection and analysis, survey research, and engaging with neighborhood stakeholders to obtain objective information with which to advance the neighborhood’s revitalization.


SOC 350 blog posts – Affordable housing in New Bedford

Affordable Housing in New Bedford

Authors: Sayyida Jean-Charles, Michael P. McCarthy (Urban Initiative research assistant), and Ashley Hurley, students in Professor Gloria de Sa’s SOC/ANT 350, ‘Urban Issues in Public Policy’ (learn more about their collaboration with the UI by reading this post)



For our service-learning project, we focused on the effectiveness of affordable housing in New Bedford. We wanted to know how many affordable housing units are available for low-income families, and if these low-income families are benefiting from their subsidized housing. This led us to ask the question, does New Bedford have effective affordable housing programs? We started our research by identifying the two major types of housing assistance. The first type, “project-based” housing, is owned by the federal, state, or local government agencies. The second type is “mobile” subsidies. These are provided to tenants and homeowners to make independent housing more affordable. The New Bedford Housing Authority oversees about 5,435 HUD subsidized housing units in New Bedford. About a third of the 5,435 HUD subsidized housing units are project-based and approximately more than half are mobile subsidies, such as housing choice or Section 8.


The research for this question was based heavily on data provided by the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). For our research, we stayed away from survey questions, feeling as if the subject was too personal for the participants. We thought we could answer our question best by looking at New Bedford’s Subsidized Housing Inventory (SHI). We examined the application public housing authorities use to evaluate a low-income family’s eligibility. By examining this data and researching literature relating to this issue, we felt confident that we would be able to suggest possible policy measures to increase the overall effectiveness of affordable housing in New Bedford.


In our examination of the literature surrounding affordable housing, its impact and effectiveness on the surrounding community, we frequently encounter the concept of a Neighborhood Condition Index (NCI). The NCI is created by comparing various indicators which are associated with healthy neighborhoods to the city baseline. In our case these were the poverty rate, housing burden rate, unemployment rate, the number of single parent families, rental housing stock, housing vacancy rate, amount of new residents (less than one year), as well as the neighborhood median income and rent. These ratios were calculated on a variable by variable basis, and then averaged by the total number of variables.

The resulting NCI number is then compared to the city average. In this case the city average is 1.0, and since we are dealing with variable which are mostly considered negative indicators of neighborhood conditions (meaning that a larger occurrence would be worse quality of life) any number larger than 1.0 means that the conditions of that particular area (in this case Census tract) are worse than the city as a whole. We adopted this strategy of analysis in order to examine the potentially adverse impact concentrations of affordable housing can have on the conditions of a neighborhood.

affordable-2 affordable-1

From our research, we know that New Bedford surpassed the state goal of having affordable housing represent 10 percent of the total housing stock. Indeed, New Bedford has an SHI of 11.8, meaning that percent its housing is considered affordable. However, this means New Bedford has 5,064 units of affordable housing. Our estimates, based on the Census’ American Community Survey, show that there are 8,325 extremely low-income households in New Bedford. Therefore, we feel it is safe to assert that only 61 percent (5,064/8,325) of them may be benefiting from the available affordable housing.

Affordable housing is not awarded to anyone there is an application process low-income families have to fill out. The Public Housing Authorities do full background checks on all applicants. This shows that not just any type of person can receive assistance.


New Bedford must make affordable housing an appealing place where people would like to live. In part, this can be accomplished by paying more attention to the city’s existing housing projects. It is important to make these housing projects more attractive and integrated into the surrounding community. Also, we feel that affordable housing should be made available for those who need it, where they need it instead of meeting a state minimum requirement.


We were able to answer our question on the effectiveness of affordable housing. However, due to our approach and limited time, the research lacks the view point of low-income residents. To hear what they believe would be beneficial to them would be an insightful way to measure the effectiveness of their housing and the role it plays in not only providing a shelter but also in increasing individual efficacy. Another limitation was that we were unable to interview people that are in charge of handling the cases for affordable housing. In sense, our research lacks a significant qualitative portion.


This research changed our views on affordable housing. Especially in regard to who receives low income housing; it has to be people who are clear of a criminal background and owe no more payments to previous housing authorities. Even though New Bedford exceeds the SHI goal, we learned that having this type of housing is beneficial to the family. Affordable housing is important because it can be used to place low-income families in better neighborhoods and integrated them into a mixed income community. Also, New Bedford’s affordable housing only benefits about 61% of its residents. The 5,064 affordable units do not satisfy the 8,325 extremely low income households, Therefore, we can expect the number of affordable housing units to further increase as Massachusetts implements more policies aimed at improving the quality of life of its residents who are stuck in a cycle of poverty.


UMass Dartmouth, Durfee High students to present collaborative photo project on 5/16

Press Release

Fall River Portraits – Creative Initiative Project

Over the past several months, students from B.M.C. Durfee High and UMass Dartmouth have taken their cameras into the Fall River’s various neighborhoods and photographed the people and places they encountered. The result is a wonderfully varied and fresh look at life in various corners of the city. This collaborative portrait features many of the city’s small businesses – barber shops, bakeries, grocery stores, tattoo parlors, clothing stores – as well as neighborhood scenes, moments of everyday life, and often unnoticed but fascinating detail. Their outstanding work of over 200 images will be shown at The Narrows Center for the Arts in an exhibit entitled, “Fall River Portraits: People, Neighborhood, Community.”

The project was designed to create meaningful collaborations between high school and college students and to encourage all of the students to explore and better understand the people and communities that make up Fall River. UMass Dartmouth students gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of the city that is just down the road from their campus, and high school students were encouraged to explore and reflect upon their own communities. Both sets of students found ways to creatively document the city’s diverse cultures and communities.

One of the results of this project is a celebration of Fall River’s family-owned businesses.   Students visited over forty small businesses in the Flint/Pleasant Street and South Main/Columbia Street areas, talked extensively to store owners, and documented the people and interactions in these establishments. Stories about some of these businesses will be featured in the show. Local businesses were also selected to print the images, host the show, and provide the refreshments for the exhibition opening. Participating merchants will also receive personal invitations to the exhibition as well as copies of students’ photographs in thanks for making the students feel welcome in their establishments.

The project is sponsored by a University of Massachusetts Creative Economy grant and organized by Mark Carvalho, photography instructor at B.M.C. Durfee High School, and Andrea Klimt, anthropology professor at UMass Dartmouth.

An Artists’ Reception will take place on Saturday, May 10th from 1:00 – 3:00, at the Narrows Center for the Arts, 16 Anawan Street in Fall River.   Admission is free. The public is cordially invited. The show will be open from May 10th until May 31st, Wednesday thru Saturday, 12-5.

For more information see or contact Andrea Klimt at, 508-999-8331. Exhibition posters and gallery cards are available upon request.


UI Evaluates Public Housing in Taunton, MA

Robert Golder, Graduate Research Assistant

HOPE VI is a public housing program administered by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Under HOPE VI, severely distressed public housing is demolished and redeveloped into new, mixed-use housing that typically is less densely populated. Attempts are also made to better integrate these new developments into adjacent neighborhoods.

A significant challenge for residents occurs as demolition displaces them into other locations or neighborhoods for, at minimum, the amount of time necessary to demolish the antiquated housing in which they lived, and to construct new housing facilities.

When the HOPE VI process was begun at Fairfax Gardens, a public housing site in Taunton, MA that had become notorious for criminal and drug activity, the Urban Initiative was chosen as the independent evaluator of the redevelopment effort, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

June 4, 2012: Dilapidated, barracks-style housing at Fairfax Gardens, a few days before demolition.

June 4, 2012: Dilapidated, barracks-style housing at Fairfax Gardens, a few days before demolition.

As part of our evaluation, the Urban Initiative was required by HUD to interview a random selection of twenty-five heads of household who formerly resided at Fairfax Gardens, which was overseen by the Taunton Housing Authority (THA). I interviewed most of these heads of household in 2013 to learn about their displacement and relocation issues, which may include concerns about family relationships, integration of relocated residents into new neighborhoods, employment and income issues, material hardships, health issues, and children’s education.

One year later, I am in the midst of a follow-up round of interviews with the same respondents. My colleague, graduate research assistant Katya Starostina, will this year conduct the interviews of Spanish-speaking heads of household.

March 27, 2013: Following demolition and site grading, the first new structures appear on site.

March 27, 2013: Following demolition and site grading, the first new structures appear on site.

Most of the displaced residents were placed by THA in Section 8 housing. This year, many respondents report that they remain in Section 8 apartments. However, there are exceptions: some families have moved back to brand-new units at Fairfax Gardens (now renamed “Bristol Commons”). A few former residents have even successfully transitioned from public to private housing.

While it is too soon to make our data tell the full story of Fairfax Gardens, these photos show the great progress that has been made on the construction site since 2012. It is my hope that this redevelopment effort will result in better outcomes for citizens of Taunton who are challenged by income and housing issues.

April 4, 2014: Residents are returning to well-designed public housing at the renamed "Bristol Commons."

April 4, 2014: Residents are returning to well-designed public housing at the renamed “Bristol Commons.”

Latino Population: An Untapped Resource for New Bedford?

Katya Starostina

Graduate Research Assistant, Urban Initiative

On Saturday April 5th, the Lawrence History Center hosted a ‘Symposium on the History of the “New Immigration” Into Lawrence, Massachusetts and Similar Communities.’ At the symposium, many experts came together to discuss the history of immigration, the immigrant experience in Massachusetts, immigrants’ vital role in entrepreneurship and urban revitalization in Gateway Cities, among many other topics.

A number of presenters focused on the experience of Latinos in Massachusetts. While Latinos make up just 9.6 percent of state population, they are more concentrated in Gateway Cities, such as Lawrence (73.8%), Lowell (17.3%), Revere (24.4%), and New Bedford (16.7%).1 Latinos make up an even bigger percentage in the public schools. They comprise as much as 90.2 percent in Lawrence, 36.1 percent in Gateway Cities overall, and 32.8 percent in New Bedford.2 The population is also quickly growing: since 2000, the Latino population grew by 59 percent in New Bedford.

The Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy Publications shared their research at the Symposium. In their 2013 report, Latinos in Massachusetts Selected Areas: New Bedford, the following selected characteristics on Latino population paint a picture worth examining.

Educational attainment_New BedfordNew Bedford’s Latino population has a median age of 24, which is much lower than the median age for the white population (39 years old). Since half of the Hispanic population is under 25, Latino students are disproportionally represented in the New Bedford Public Schools compared to their overall population size. The chart below shows how low education attainment is among Latinos over the age of 25 in New Bedford. More than half (53%) are without a high school diploma.

Jobs_New BedfordMedian Income_New Bedford                                                                      Latinos in New Bedford have a lower labor force participation rate (62%) than Latinos statewide (70%) and a higher unemployment rate (17%) than Latinos statewide (13%). As the chart on the left shows, they are working primarily low-wage jobs, with only 13 percent working in white-color jobs.

As a result, Latinos have the lowest median income ($25,651) of all ethnic groups in New Bedford – much lower than the overall median income in New Bedford ($37,493) and statewide median income ($65,981), as the chart on the right demonstrates. The percentage of Latinos in New Bedford without a medical insurance is double (14%) the rate of uninsured statewide (7%).


Since the Latino population is so young (around 20 percent are 18 or under), the public education system can truly make a difference to turn the trend of low education attainment and low-income among Latinos around. However, as I’ve pointed out in my blog post on graduation rates, Hispanic/Latino students and English Language Learners have the lowest rates of graduation.

One-fifth of Latinos in New Bedford (3,190 people) are foreign-born, which presents significant challenges for children in public schools and parents who have to advocate for their children.1 As Helena DaSilva from the Immigrant Assistance Center related at a recent Leadership SouthCoast presentation, there are not sufficient services in place in New Bedford Public Schools for Latino immigrants and English Language Learners (ELLs). Many schools lack basic translation services for students and parents to communicate with teachers in their native language.

This topic was addressed at the Education Vision Forum that the Urban Initiative co-hosted with MassINC on March 28. A successful model of working with ELL students from Brockton Public Schools was discussed, including their Sheltered Instruction and Two-Way Language Program. The Vision presents a number of recommended initiatives, supported by research focused on these efforts, which stand on three pillars: expanded learning time, family engagement, and fostering bi-literacy.

With such a need present, New Bedford is in a position to have a high-impact on a big part of its population by adapting research-based models practiced in other Gateway Cities and schools across the country. It is crucial for New Bedford to harness all its resources in ensuring Latino students are graduating high school college-ready and are highly-skilled for jobs and entrepreneurship in the changing economy. While the challenge is great and stakes are high, cities like Lawrence have demonstrated, in winning the Working Cities Challenge, that it takes a city-wide collaboration across all sectors to successfully meet the needs of students and families.

1Data is from 2012 ACS 5 year-estimates

2Data is from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

September project update

New developments this month include a new graduate assistant, new (and renewed) collaborations with UMass Dartmouth faculty and their students, and even a new project to announce. Read on:

1) SouthCoast health planning dashboard

If you haven’t noticed, 2013 is the year of public health for the Urban Initiative. This is an exciting direction for us, and not only because health is so closely connected to every other urban issue we study, particularly in cities like New Bedford and Fall River. We’re also excited to have the opportunity to work with group of individuals and organizations that collaborate genuinely and effectively to promote better health outcomes for SouthCoast residents. And as we know, collaboration matters!

Our newest health-related project will be to work with a great team of regional health organizations (headed up by the indefatigable Dave Weed of Partners for a Healthier Community) to develop an information-sharing tool that will build the capacity of our region when it comes to understanding and acting upon health needs and opportunities. The main feature of the site will be a tool that allows partner organizations to share local health data and resources in a timely and interactive way, serving as a “dashboard” to guide decision-making. Stay tuned for more updates and let us know if you’re interested in learning more about joining this project!

2) Taunton HOPE VI evaluation

This month has us drafting our first annual report on the progress of the Taunton Housing Authority’s HOPE VI project, which will include data related to the city, the neighborhood, and the original residents of the former Fairfax Gardens housing development.

3) LifeWork evaluation

The Women’s Fund has just enrolled the first cohort of participants in its pilot program, LifeWork. Over the next few months, the Urban Initiative will work with LifeWork program staff to collect baseline data on participants so that we can establish a baseline against which to measure individual and collective progress toward the program’s goals of advancing educational attainment, improving employment status and earnings, and helping women on a path to financial self-sufficiency.

4) College access

We’re currently working with our team of high school interns to finalize their report on findings related to college access in the SouthCoast, and we’ll soon be announcing a report release event.

5) SouthCoast Hospitals Community Needs Assessment

We’ve been working with our colleagues of the UMass Dartmouth Center for Policy Analysis to develop the community needs assessment for the SouthCoast Hospitals system. The assessment includes data on health status and social determinants of health for the region spanning Swansea to Wareham.

6) NB Line

We’re currently working on reporting our findings from the second year of evaluating the NB Line, a shuttle system being piloted in downtown New Bedford by the city’s National Park.

7) Faculty/student collaborations

This semester, we’ve been asked to identify community-based research projects for students in Professor Sarah Cosgrove’s Urban Economics course as well as students in Professor Gloria de Sa’s Sociology course. We got a lot of great ideas from our community partners for projects that will build students’ skills, help them apply their coursework, and develop a better understanding of needs and opportunities in Fall River and New Bedford. We look forward to updating you on the projects these students have chosen to take on!