How would poor families benefit from residential mobility? More results

One night last summer, I went out with Ceasefire violence interrupters in a tough community. For almost three hours I and two Ceasefire staff members cruised the side streets. We discussed local issues, visited places where there had been shootings, talking with people. It was an uneventful ride. The interrupters related some striking stories about their earlier experiences in the street life. One had a nasty pink scar ringing his neck I still shudder about.

Upon our return to the Ceasefire office, we saw some people fighting in a nearby lot. (I’m fuzzing some details for confidentiality.) The Ceasefire staff jumped out of my car and broke things up. Only it wasn’t over. Incensed witnesses had been on cellphones, summoning reinforcements. A few minutes later, people started to converge on foot and in cars. Before I really understood what was happening, two angry groups of men confronted each other while a handful of Ceasefire staff kept them apart and tried to mediate. It was an ugly and frightening scene. Fortunately, the confrontation eventually ended without violence.

When I ponder such episodes, I confess that my first thoughts concern how to move young people out of such challenged places. I’m not the only or the first person with this thought. Indeed that was the premise of the famous Movement to Opportunity (MTO) experiment, which I discussed in an earlier post….

If you want to see how empirical social science is practiced at the highest level, you won’t do better than to read my colleague Jens Ludwig and his co-authors on MTO. This was a beautifully executed and analyzed housing mobility experiment, in which (to simplify a complex design) MTO participants were assisted and encouraged to move from high-poverty neighborhoods to neighborhoods of less-concentrated poverty. The research team has been analyzing some fifteen years of follow-up data, and has published a stream of findings.

MTO may be the most important study of neighborhood poverty ever conducted. It’s important from a policy perspective because one can examine the impact on thousands of people of a rigorous intervention trial that facilitated residential mobility. It’s important from a research perspective, because it allows us to explore how various specific neighborhood characteristics are associated with adult and child outcomes.

From my perspective, MTOs provides quite the mix of both encouraging and profoundly disappointing results. Residential mobility does not radically improve people’s lives in the ways that I have sometimes hoped it would.

A beautiful and sobering qualitative analysis identifies one basic issue: how unexpectedly difficult it is, for many reasons, for families to really leave high-poverty neighborhoods. A surprisingly large proportion of families offered the opportunity to leave high-poverty neighborhoods end up in neighborhoods depressingly similar to those they left behind. Despite various program supports, only 47 percent of families offered an experimental group voucher (and 63 percent of those offered Section 8 vouchers) actually relocated through MTO.

MTO participants did, on average, relocate to lower-poverty neighborhoods.  They did not move to less racially segregated neighborhoods, or neighborhoods that have appreciably better schools. In the context of Chicago, The MTO model allows families to leave embattled neighborhoods akin to Englewood or Roseland to communities such as Hazel Crest or Harvey.

MTO had a disappointing impact on several centerpiece outcomes. It produced “few detectable effects on a range of schooling outcomes, even for those children who were of preschool age.” The intervention produced no real gains in families’ economic status or self-sufficiency, either. Girls derived some valuable benefits. Boys seemed to derive much less benefit.

Once you get over your disappointment with the failure to move these central outcomes, you can appreciate some genuinely important benefits that demonstrate the human value of these residential moves, and that, implicitly, describe what might be improved in the original neighborhoods that these families sought to leave behind. The benefits are not transformational, but they are still quite significant.

The current issue of Science includes the MTO team’s latest contribution. A nice compendium at Cityscape (variously cited below) provides further results.

The authors find that a one standard- deviation decline in neighborhood poverty (13 percentage points) increases individuals’ self-reported well-being “by an amount equal to the gap in subjective well-being between people whose annual incomes differ by $13,000—a large amount given that the average control group income is $20,000.”

A prior New England Journal of Medicine article from the same research team found that movement to a low-poverty neighborhood is associated with reduced prevalence of extreme obesity and glycated hemoglobin level of 6.5% or more – a key diabetes measure. These are really important benefits for individual well-being. MTO respondents who moved to low-poverty neighborhoods also reported that they lived in safer neighborhoods, and that they were less likely to experience psychological distress.

Such findings should also lead us to wonder how best to intervene in high-poverty neighborhoods where so many low-income families will actually live. We should do much more to promote integration and mobility. Yet we seem unable, politically and practically, to move millions of poor people into markedly less segregated and more prosperous neighborhoods. We can make low-income neighborhoods safer, less stressful. Helping residents of these communities to be happier, healthier, and safer would be no small accomplishment.

One of the most obvious issues concerns crime. Violence and disorder on the street, at home, and at school shape much of families’ everyday experience. Much of this crime could be reduced through significant investment in evidence-supported interventions. Urban crime is down compared with five, ten, or twenty years ago. Across Chicagoland and many other metropolitan areas, American middle-class people live in physical safety comparable to London or Paris. Meanwhile, low-income residents, particularly youth, live in a fundamentally more dangerous situation. It doesn’t have to be this way.


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