Monday, February 1, 2016
One of the most fascinating social experiments of the last quarter century has been the government’s Moving to Opportunity Program (MTO). In a nutshell, the Department of Housing and Human Development (HUD) ran an experiment during the period 1994-1998 to determine the effects of living in neighborhood’s varying in prosperity on the economic fortunes, and the heath and well-being of poor families. Neighborhoods differing on average income also differ on such things as, quality of housing, social cohesion, family structure, safety, employment opportunities, prevalence of parks and playgrounds, school quality, access to healthful foods and health services, and the presence or absence of such things as gangs, violence, and drugs. Given the array of factors that differentiate wealthy from poor communities, a general hypothesis upon which this experiment was based is that where one lives will largely determine what one becomes.
The way the experiment worked was that from 1994 to 1998 HUD awarded housing vouchers to 4604 low-income families living in high-poverty neighborhoods in five cities. Most heads of households in this experiment were African-American or Hispanic females who had less than a 40% high school graduation rate. As well, a large percentage indicated that they had signed-up for the MTO initiative because they wanted to leave gang and drug infested neighborhoods.
What made this experiment unique was that families were randomly assigned to one of three groups:
· Group 1 received a housing voucher, which restricted them to relocating to a low poverty neighborhood (poverty rates below 10%).
· Group 2 received a housing voucher that had no restrictions on where it could be used.
· Group 3, which could be thought of as a control group, just received housing assistance in the projects where they currently lived.
The ultimate question was what effects, if any, a poor family experienced if they relocated to a neighborhood inhabited by more affluent cohorts.
Surprisingly, after 15 years, no economic differences were found for adults moving to a more affluent community. That is to say, income was approximately the same whether or not an adult moved to a wealthier community or stayed in a poorer community. As well, only marginal, but non-significant differences were found in the physical and mental health of adults who had relocated. Clearly, the lack of effects on these important variables were not what HUD had hoped for when they crafted MTO.
However, these findings, or lack of findings, may not tell the whole story as a somewhat curious measure of self-reported well-being did show that, despite non-significant results in what might be conceived as more substantive measures, adults who moved to less distressed neighborhoods perceived themselves to be happier and better off. While it is always a bit speculative to quantify psychological states in economic terms, a recent study stated that such a psychological profile was typical of people earning an additional $13,000.[i] In a sense then, poorer adults were receiving a real increment in their psychic income from living in a wealthier neighborhood that was not associated with an increment in their real income.
This gets even more interesting as another, more recent study, examined what happened to the children who were part of the various MTO groups by the time they got to their mid-twenties and older.[ii] Results showed a clear dosage effect. Children who were less than 13 (average age 8) when they moved to a wealthier neighborhood, who had had 9.8 years, on average, of exposure, earned $3477 more a year than controls, were more likely to attend college (16% better than controls), attended better colleges, were also more likely to live in lower-poverty neighborhoods as adults, and less likely to be single parents themselves. On the other hand, children who moved to wealthier neighborhoods between the ages of 13-18 (average age 15), were associated with negative effects. By their mid-twenties they actually earned $967 less per year than controls, and fared poorer than or equal to controls on other things such as college attendance, college quality, where they lived as adults, and whether they were single parents themselves as adults. Consequently, it appears that MTO had different effects depending on when a child moved. For younger children, the effects were positive. For older children, they were negative. While explaining such differential effects can only be speculative, arguments have been made that positive effects for younger children were a result of exposure to positive experiences over a longer period during critical developmental years. On the other hand, negative effects for older children have been attributed to the disruption of social networks that are critical during the adolescent years.
What does MOT Mean to Programs such as Project Coach and Community Development?
From a wider perspective, moving to a lower poverty neighborhood, had consequential long lasting effects on younger children that were transferred, in turn, to their own children. More so, the effects do not appear to be mediated by family income, but by a neighborhood’s economic well-being, which, in turn, has an impact on an array of environmental factors. While the data are clear that MTO has a powerful effect on changing younger children’s lives, and the lives of their children, it is not clear on what specific neighborhood factors were responsible for producing different life trajectories for these children. Seemingly, if these could be identified and transported across neighborhoods, we might anticipate better life outcomes for youth growing up poor.
Given that our government is not about to provide housing vouchers for millions of poor families to relocate to more affluent neighborhoods, it seems reasonable to ponder how those things that poor families experienced in wealthier neighborhoods can be replicated in poorer neighborhoods. Clearly, this seems like a reasonable question to ask, but those of us who do community work every day know that it is not easily answered. Communities are complex places, and the term emergent system, seems to characterize such geographical enclaves. In short, healthy neighborhoods require many ingredients that interact in complex ways. In such a system, the sum of interactions is greater than all of its parts. Furthermore, no one really knows how, or is able, to build the ideal community from a well-defined blueprint over which they have the capacity to control inputs and outputs.
Yet, experiments like MTO appears to be telling us that children are impacted by where they live and grow-up, that effects are cumulative, and track into adulthood. While clarity does not exist on which factors are most critical to the neighborhood effect a simple message may be that many components are part of the mix, and that neighborhoods that wish to be transformed need to work on anything and everything. These should include, but not be limited to such things as: (a) physical aspects, which would comprise the quality and maintenance of housing, parks, libraries, and other public spaces; (b) the quality of schools, (c) the availability of medical services; (d) easy access to supermarkets that carry a wide variety of foods; (e) safety in the streets and on playgrounds; (f) support for businesses that provide goods, services, and employment; and (g) promoting social cohesion that engages citizens in community decisions about things that affect their lives.
Within this context, programs such as Project Coach play a critical role. While not the universal panacea for all the challenges that distressed neighborhoods face, it is an important ingredient that goes into the stew of factors that can make a community more livable. Project Coach on face value may be viewed as a sport’s program, but by design sports are simply the medium through which youth are engaged so that they can build: (a) relationships between young children who get opportunities to play various sports and adolescents who serve as their coaches and mentors, (b) relationships among adolescents and their young adult mentors and tutors who help them to meet the daily challenges of growing up in an underserved community, and (c) lifeskills and character skills that help youth to achieve the same sorts of things that the younger children in MTO achieved. Project Coach also provides a means for bringing children’s parents and other relatives together to observe them in action, and for parents to participate together with their children in various activities during monthly community nights.
Surely, Project Coach, or any other program alone, does not contain the full array of benefits that children obtained from MTO, but it is the type of ingredient that can be added into the stew that ultimately makes a neighborhood a better place to live. Clearly, the MTO voucher program makes sense, but for the vast majority of families who will never see a voucher and continue to live in poor neighborhoods, we should continue to offer residents programs, like Project Coach, that make where they live a bit more like the places to which MTO families moved.
[i] Ludwig, J., Duncan, G. J., Gennetian, L. A., Katz, L. F., Kessler, R. C., Kling, J. R., & Sanbonmatsu, L. (2012). Neighborhood effects on the long-term well-being of low-income adults. Science, 337, 1505-1510.
[ii] Chetty, R., Hendren, N., & Katz, L. F. (2015). The effects of exposure to better neighborhoods on children : New evidence from the moving to opportunity experiment Cambridge, Mass. http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/hendren/files/mto_paper.pdf.