Does Moving Poor People Work?

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Thomas B. Edsall in the NYT:

Under the aegis of the “Moving to Opportunity” program, begun during the first administration of Bill Clinton, the Department of Housing and Urban Development randomly selected a large pool of low-income families with children living in public housing in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. Ninety-eight percent of the families were headed by women; 63 percent were black, 32 percent Hispanic, and 3 percent white; 26 percent were employed, 76 percent were receiving welfare, and families had an average income of $12,709 in 2009 dollars.

These families, 4604 of them, to be exact, were then divided into three groups. An experimental group of 1,819 families was offered “Section 8 rental assistance certificates or vouchers that they could use only in census tracts with 1990 poverty rates below 10 percent”; 855 accepted the offer and became part of the study. A second group of 1,346 families was offered more traditional “Section 8” rent subsidy vouchers that could be used in anyneighborhood; 848 accepted.

A control group composed of 1,439 families stayed in public housing and became part of the study. The purpose of the relocation initiative, according to Department of Housing and Urban Development, was to test the “long-term effects of access to low-poverty neighborhoods on the housing, employment and educational achievements of the assisted households.” Researchers also studied how relocation affected the health of those who accepted vouchers.

A paper published in the May 2013 issue of the American Economic Review, “Long-Term Neighborhood Effects on Low-Income Families: Evidence From Moving to Opportunity,” found that after 10 to 15 years, moving out of high-poverty public housing through the M.T.O. program showed mixed results.

There were some positive developments, according to the primary author of the paper, Jens Ludwig, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and the project director for a final assessment of the M.T.O. program. Ludwig and his six co-authors found improvement in “several key adult mental and physical health outcomes.” These included significantly lowered risk of diabetes and obesity, as well an improved level of “subjective well-being.”

But the Ludwig study also found that “changing neighborhoods alone may not be sufficient to improve labor market or schooling outcomes for very disadvantaged families.” Ludwig reported that this particular form of assistance from HUD –a housing voucher that allowed recipients to move into a “low poverty” area – had “no consistent detectable impacts on adult economic self-sufficiency or children’s educational achievement outcomes, even for children who were too young to have enrolled in school at baseline.”

More here.

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