Why Girls Fare Better Than Boys When Moving Out of Poor Neighborhoods


Faculty Researcher Kathryn Edin, Professor of Public Policy and Management, Harvard Kennedy School Paper Title Moving Teenagers Out of High-Risk Neighborhoods: How Girls Fare Better Than Boys
Coauthors Susan Clampet- Lundquist, St. Joseph’s University; Jeffrey Kling, U.S. Congressional Budget Office; Greg Duncan, University of California, Irvine

Naomi was given a chance to live in a Baltimore community where less than 10 percent of her neighbors were poor. “At first I couldn’t get used to the quietness because I was used to like noise because we was like on the street side [in the projects],” said the 18-year-old. “I’ve gotten used to it now.” After getting used to it, Naomi enjoyed feeling safe on her quiet street.

In contrast, 16-year-old Bart, who was given a similar opportunity, ended up moving back to a poor East Baltimore neighborhood. “It was just too quiet. I don’t like a lot of quiet.”

In the paper “Moving Teenagers Out of High-Risk Neighborhoods: How Girls Fare Better than Boys,” Kathryn Edin, a professor of public policy and management, found that Naomi and Bart were not exceptions.

Both teenagers were beneficiaries of Moving to Opportunity (mto), a federal program designed to offer families a chance to move into low-poverty neighborhoods through housing vouchers. “When the experimental data came back, there was this completely confusing result — boys were doing worse and girls were doing better,” says Edin. “No one could figure out why this intervention would impact boys and girls differently. So we decided to ask them.”

Edin and her coauthors conducted in-depth qualitative research to explore gender differences in risk behavior among youths in Baltimore and Chicago. To investigate the survey results further, they interviewed four groups of youths: two control groups, made up of teenagers who remained in their high-poverty neighborhoods, and two experimental groups, one female and one male, who were given vouchers to move to a new neighborhood.

“The results show how qualitative and quantitative methods complement one another,” says Edin. “The larger story behind it is that even within the same families and the same community, boys and girls live in fundamentally different social worlds. The neighborhood demands on boys are very different from what the neighborhood demands of girls. The boys have to confront the street much more than girls.”

The study found that the behaviors and choices the boys and girls exhibited in their old neighborhoods contributed to how they adjusted and felt in their new neighborhoods. For example, boys hung out by playing football or basketball at a local school, park, alley, inner courtyard, or vacant lot. Girls usually spent their time inside the house or on the front stoop, talking and playing cards. Roger, a 16-year-old who was initially placed in a mostly black Chicago suburb, told the researchers, “There was nothing to do at all. Police always messing with you. Talking about you doing this and you doing that.” Eventually, Roger moved back to his old neighborhood, where he had been shot more than a year prior to his interview.

Furthermore, moving to a low-poverty neighborhood, if only for a time, may have robbed some of the experimental boys of the opportunity to develop knowledge and key skills that would later have proved protective when they moved back to poorer neighborhoods. Boys from the control group could acquire navigational skills to avoid the more dangerous aspects of a neighborhood if they so desired. In contrast, boys from the experimental group initially moved to neighborhoods where “street drama” was less common and such skills were less necessary. While this may have worked out well for them had they continued to remain in the low-poverty neighborhoods, many moved back to poorer neighborhoods with higher rates of crime.

The research offers a better understanding of the mechanisms by which various aspects of a neighborhood might interact with various characteristics of individual youths, such as gender. Moreover, designers of programs like mto now have more information at their disposal about how housing mobility initiatives interact with the gendered social worlds of teenagers. Programs that do more to keep families in low-poverty neighborhoods longer might be particularly important for the well-being of boys.

— by Jenny Li Fowler

"The neighborhood demands on boys are very different from what the neighborhood demands of girls. The boys have to confront the street much more than girls.”

John F. Kennedy School of Government 79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
617-495-1100 Get Directions Visit Contact Page