Author Archives: fiilomene

The Impacts of Housing Policy on Socioeconomic Residential Segregation and Violence

We are increasingly being made aware of how important our environment is to all aspects of life (health, emotional well-being, access to education, opportunity, etc.) however, many don’t realize how housing policies in our country have had such a large impact on poverty, education, health and violence. Urban planning and housing policy is intimately tied to all aspects of violence prevalent in our communities. In turn, the physical environments that people live in define not only their educational and employment opportunities, but also their health outcomes. I was specifically interested in finding out how housing policies and programs that were implemented right after World War II shaped the characteristics of neighborhoods and the geographical divisions within cities that exist today.

In 1934 following the Great Depression, the federal banking system was restructured and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was created as part of a new deal program in order to help citizens purchase homes by privately lending money to home buyers. The FHA also allowed the government to control who could or could not purchase homes based on a variety of factors that more often than not included race as a criteria used to deny loans1. Redlining was one such practice induced by the FHA in order to prevent African Americans and other minorities from obtaining housing loans. In 1935, the FHA and the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) assessed 239 cities and created residential security maps, which were meant to outline economic and social stability, but in reality outlined neighborhoods on the basis of ethnic make-up. Based on these maps, many minority communities were ineligible for housing financing and were denied housing loans. Politically motivated practices such as redlining in predominantly Black and minority occupied neighborhoods created a “lack of equal access to credit, [which] had profound ramifications including fabulous enrichment for speculative contract sellers and their investors, debt peonage or impoverishment from many black contract buyers and an almost guaranteed decay of the communities in which such sales were concentrated2.”

Up until the 1960s, “federal housing agencies engaged in racial redlining, refusing to guarantee mortgages in inner city neighborhoods3.” The long-term effect of practices such as redlining included the separation of populations along ethnic lines, creating a sort of ‘urban apartheid,’ that can be directly traced back to the above government policies. Housing policy must be designed to address this history of spatial and racial socioeconomic segregation. One avenue through which this can be addressed is through mixed income housing that encourages socioeconomic integration of neighborhoods. An interesting example that we recently discussed in our class on violence was the preservation of socioeconomic integration of neighborhoods in Paris. A lack of elevators in many buildings in Paris led naturally to a social order where wealthy people lived on the ground floor (because they could afford a more expensive apartment where they didn’t need to climb the stairs), and poorer families lived on the higher floors (because they could not afford the more expensive apartments on the ground floors). As a result of this natural preservation of socioeconomic integration (simply due to lack of elevators), school systems in Parisian neighborhoods remain socioeconomically integrated, presenting equal opportunities for wealthy as well as poorer families.

An understanding of the historical forces that have instilled a legacy of racism and spatial segregation is key to moving forward with the structural changes that must be implemented to improve living conditions in zones of concentrated violence and inequality. Acknowledging the cumulative impact of years of politically motivated spatial segregation and installation of inequality is essential both at the level of public knowledge and governmental policy decision making. While much of the impacts of historical housing policy seem lacking in hope for change and progress, an important aspect to note is that the pride and sense of connection to a community can be extremely impactful on health including on levels of violence. Studies demonstrate that the health of new immigrant populations is often on equal levels as those of wealth Americans based on the fact that recent immigrants maintain strong connections and ties to their community. These positive health effects rapidly drop off in second and third generation immigrants. These studies offer promising avenues of hope, suggesting that strong family and community networks can counter many of the most difficult situations that people face and greatly affect an individuals’ resiliency to future insults. Thus, important interventions should not only include changes in housing policy that would promote socioeconomic integration of neighborhoods, and programs that would allow individuals to own their own homes, but should also include programs that foster a greater sense of community and increase ties and connections individuals feel towards their community.


1Ploys in the Hood, Raymond Arsenault

2Why the Poor Stay Poor, Richard Thompson Ford

3 In Chicago, Real Estate and Race as a Volatile Mix, Dwight Garner


The Necessity of Understanding the Intangible Costs of Violence against Women

While violence against women is widespread world-wide and within the United States, I was recently surprised to discover that when measuring the cost of violence in an economic sense, the economic value of women is far less than that of men1. The next question to ask is – how exactly is “economic value” measured? One method, the human capitol approach, measures value in terms of participation in the labor market and wages earned. In this analysis, women, the elderly, and children are all assigned values less than that of men based on the fact that these groups earn lower wages on average and also have decreased overall participation and representation in the labor market. These measures however, are all intimately tied to “economic monetary value” and do not consider or take into account measures going beyond those directly related to the labor market.

A UN report on violence against women in 2005 addressed the need for expanding the ways in which economic value/cost is assessed2. The report separated the types of costs of violence against women into four different categories: direct tangible costs, indirect tangible costs, direct intangible costs and indirect intangible costs. Direct tangible costs include aspects that are typically assessed in cost measurement analyses including expenses paid and spent assessed by “measuring the goods and services consumed and multiplying by their unit cost.” Indirect tangible costs are also typically included in economic analyses and are typically measured as a loss of potential – including earnings and profits that would result from reduced productivity or loss of personal income due to decreased time at work. Usually these direct and indirect tangible costs have obvious monetary value that can be assessed through traditional means of economic analysis. The last two cost categories, indirect and direct intangible costs, however, present more difficult cost categories to measure. Indirect intangible costs “result indirectly from the violence, and have no monetary value” (in the traditional economic analysis sense), and can include the pain and suffering experienced by the woman and a resultant decreased overall quality of life. The indirect intangible costs also have no monetary value, but instead result indirectly from the violence, and can include the “negative psychological effects on children who witness violence,” or the decreased care a mother can provide after herself experiencing a traumatic or violent event. These indirect intangible costs are perhaps the least explored of the four cost categories. Recent evidence on the impacts of adverse early life environments on children would suggest that the indirect intangible cost category is perhaps the most biologically, socially and economically relevant category and thus necessitates further study and consideration.

In general, societal costs are dual-sided, with one side reflecting an analysis of economic changes related to monetary value, and the second side involving social consequences that may not be as easily measured. In particular when considering the cost of violence against women, the second societal cost, which includes health costs and effects on dependents of women affected by the violence indirectly, is not easily measured. In an early class discussion this semester on the biological bases and effects of violence, we discussed research demonstrating that women are often more prone to internalizing behaviors that can result in the development of and increased risk for psychiatric disorders such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while men often exhibit externalizing behaviors following violence or traumatic experiences (such as aggression, violent behavior and crime). In fact, women are more likely to develop PTSD following an experience of trauma compared to men3. Understanding the biology behind these differences in susceptibility to PTSD development is of extreme importance.

In addition to the direct effects of violence on the woman, we must also consider the dependents (children, etc.) that are just as affected by the woman’s experience of violence. In fact, research has demonstrated that women experiencing domestic violence before becoming pregnant, have children who exhibit characteristics of children living in households with domestic violence, even if those children have been raised in safe environments4. There are several explanations for this phenomenon – biological factors and epigenetic mechanisms that occur in the mother as a result of experiencing extreme stress in the form of domestic violence may be passed on and predispose the child to having an increased risk for anxiety disorders and PTSD (see the recent blog post on transgenerational inheritance for more information). Additionally, the woman could continue to suffer from the traumatic experience and behaviorally develop a different mode of maternal care due to her increased stress, anxiety and depression, which can also adversely affect the developing child.

These intangible costs of violence against women represent huge potential cost categories both socially and economically. We must push to develop tools to document and measure the effects of violence against women on the second and third generation offspring. Biological research has shown that traumatic experiences in parental generations can be biologically transmitted/inherited by the offspring, and that these effects persist for several generations. We must enhance our sphere of understanding by developing ways to economically document these effects.

1Corso, P. S., Mercy, J. A., Simon, T. R., Finkelstein, E. A., & Miller, T. R. (2007). Medical costs and productivity losses due to interpersonal and self-directed violence in the United States. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 32(6), 474–482.

2Day, T., McKenna, K., Bowlus, A. (2005). The economic costs of violence against women: an evaluation of the literature – Expert brief compiled in preparation for the Secretary-General’s in-depth study on all forms of violence against women.

3Breslau, N. (2001). The epidemiology of posttraumatic stress disorder: what is the extent of the problem? Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 62(17), 16-22.

Transgenerational Inheritance: The Impact of the Environment on Future Generations

Our class on violence recently explored ideas within developmental psychology that understanding the contexts within which the child develops is crucial for studying child development. The child develops in multiple embedded systems, each of which is unique and incredibly complex. These range from immediate contexts (family life, within a neighborhood and community) to secondarily related (the parent’s work environment, schools) and finally to broader economic, political and historical contexts.  The child exists, navigates and acts within all of these spheres simultaneously. Recent research has demonstrated that environmental events within each of these spheres can permanently alter an individuals ‘epigenetic code.’1 This further highlights that a child’s environment can leave a lasting and permanent effect at the level of biology and behavior.

Modern epigenetics can be defined as ‘the structural adaptation of chromosomal regions so as to register, signal or perpetuate altered activity states’2. The most prominent epigenetic mechanisms include DNA methylation (modification of the DNA through the addition of a methyl group) and histone acetylation (modifications of adding an acetyl group to the protein histones, in which the DNA is usually wrapped). Generally, methylation switches genes off and acetylation switches them on. Factors within the environment can influence these mechanisms, which together can change the way genes are turned on or off. In addition to altering the epigenetic code in ways that affect an individual across the lifespan, recent evidence has demonstrated that the epigenetic code acquired throughout life may be inherited – theoretically providing an adaptive advantage for the offspring in preparing them for their future interactions with the world.

Thus in addition to the broader social contexts initially discussed we must also consider 1) post-natal behavioral and social interactions between the parent and the offspring that can impact the epigenetic code, 2) prenatal life involving fetal programming (environmental factors during pregnancy that may influence the fetus and affect its development) and finally, 3) pre-conception contexts (the impact of the parental and grand-parental environment that may be inherited through the epigenetic code). At all three of these levels the epigenetic code may be altered.

While post-natal behavioral and social interactions and fetal programming have received much attention in recent years, the idea that a ‘pre-conception’ environment may influence the health and susceptibility to disease of the offspring has received less attention. A recent study in rodent animal models investigated the intergenerational effects of nicotine and found that in pregnant rats exposed to nicotine, the offspring and the ‘grand-offspring’ develop the same asthma induced by nicotine3. Studies in humans related to nutrition and diet have found that grand-parental food supply is associated with mortality risk, cardiovascular disease and diabetes in the grand-children (even if the grand-children and their parents had a healthy diet and nutrition)4.  Diet, environmental toxicants, drugs and particularly stress have the ability to severely impact an individual, and now it seems, to also impact their offspring and grand-offspring.

Stressful conditions and negative environmental factors such as exposure to traumatic or violent events can affect brain functions and mental health throughout life, and we are only beginning to understand how the impacts of these stressors may be transgenerationally passed on to future generations. These data all highlight the critical need for understanding the multiple and complex contexts (both immediate and indirect) within which a child develops.

1Franklin TB, Mansuy IM (2010). Epigenetic Inheritance in mammals: evidence for the impact of adverse environmental effects. Neurobiology of disease 39(1):61-65.

2Bird A (2007). Perceptions of epigenetics. Nature 447: 396-398.


4Pembrey ME, Bygren LO, Kaati G, Edvinsson S, Northstone K, Sjostrom M et al (2006). Sex-specific, male-line transgenerational responses in humans. Eur J Hum Genet 14: 159-166.