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CAMBRIDGE, MASS -- A bold social experiment that aims to transform people’s lives by moving them out of poor neighborhoods appears to be succeeding, with families enjoying more safety, fewer behavior problems among boys, and even better health, according to a new study by researchers at Princeton and Harvard universities.
The study, by Jeffrey R. Kling at Princeton and Jeffrey B. Liebman and Lawrence F. Katz at Harvard, reports on the early progress of Boston families who moved out of high-poverty neighborhoods as part of a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program known as Moving to Opportunity. Their results, contained in a report to HUD and to be published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2001, are among the first findings in what will be about a decade of research around the country.
"The main policy conclusion is that vouchers do work," said Kling, an economist who is assistant professor in Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Those who received vouchers to move from the poor communities fared better "in almost every dimension" than those who received traditional housing assistance and remained in their neighborhoods, he said.
Former HUD Assistant Secretary Xavier Briggs described the research as "extraordinarily significant," providing solid evidence for the theory that neighborhoods have powerful effects on many aspects of family life.
"I don’t think anyone – even the most committed housing advocates – understood on how many different levels this could benefit families, including near-term, quick-to-register impacts on health and positive behavior," said Briggs, now a sociologist at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "The theory has always been that it would take years for effects to register. But when you leave neighborhoods behind where you’re ducking bullets and worried for your life, and for your children’s lives, every minute of every day, lo and behold it doesn’t take long for things to register at all."
Moving to Opportunity was viewed by policymakers and social scientists as a landmark social experiment when it began in 1994 in five cities: Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. Many wanted to know how neighborhood conditions affect the life chances of poor children – and how those children would fare when they were removed from their communities and blended into the middle class. The idea was highly controversial, as residents in receiving communities often fear that the arrival of low-income neighbors will decrease their property values and diminish opportunities for their own children.
Between 1994 and 1998, more than 4,600 families applied to take part in Moving to Opportunity, and were randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first group received a housing voucher and special counseling and search assistance to move only to a low-poverty community. The second group also received a subsidy and limited counseling, but was not restricted to low-poverty neighborhoods. The third group – the control group – received no special assistance, but remained eligible for their existing public housing.
After only one to three and a half years in the program, the results were striking.
Almost half of those who received the special counseling and vouchers good only for low-poverty neighborhoods had moved out of their public housing projects through the MTO, many of them out of Boston. About 62 percent of those who received subsidies good for use anywhere also moved, although more remained within city limits.
Both groups moved to communities with lower poverty rates, higher education rates, higher employment rates, and less gunfire and drug dealing. The differences were greatest for those who had the restricted vouchers and the special counseling, although they were substantial for both groups.
In surveys conducted about two years after they moved, families noted the many ways in which their lives had improved. Members of both groups said they were less likely to be victims of property crimes, and children in the group using restricted vouchers were less likely to be victims of personal crimes as well.
Boys in families that had moved through MTO were found to be less likely to be cruel to others or to be depressed. Children had fewer behavior problems. Household heads reported that they felt calmer and more peaceful, and that their overall health was better than similar adults who had not received the vouchers. In families that used the restricted vouchers, children had fewer injuries and even the number of asthma attacks was reduced.
The researchers found no impact on welfare receipt or employment, although that may change over time.
Liebman, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, said the MTO research "demonstrates conclusively that the neighborhood in which a child grows up matters," with two implications for housing policy. "First, giving vouchers to help public housing residents move to private rental units in better neighborhoods can greatly improve outcomes for their children," he said. "Second, efforts to improve conditions in distressed neighborhoods are similarly likely to have important benefits for children."
Kling said he was struck by many poignant comments from affected family members who told researchers of why they were taking part in the program. For example, he said, "I remember one woman – the reason she wanted to move was that she was afraid that a random act of violence would strike down her child," he recalled. "That’s what choice meant – without it, her kid could be standing on the street corner waiting for the bus and be blown away."
The research was funded by HUD, the National Bureau of Economic Research, the National Institute on Aging and Harvard University. The research team has received two new grants, from the Russell Sage Foundation and the Smith Richardson Foundation, to expand future MTO research to collect data on children five years after program enrollment in all five MTO cities -- particularly in the areas of education, risky behaviors and health.
Comprehensive information on the research related to the MTO demonstration, including copies of all preliminary studies, can be found at www.mtoresearch.org.