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"Why Housing Mobility? The Research Evidence Today,"

by Margery Austin Turner January/February 2005 issue of Poverty & Race

For too much of the last century, federal housing programs helped create and sustain patterns of racial segregation and concentrated poverty. But beginning in the mid-1990s, housing mobility emerged as an explicit goal of federal housing policy, and efforts were launched in as many as 33 metro areas to help low-income families move from poor and predominantly minority neighborhoods to more affluent and racially integrated communities. Many of these efforts were inspired by research on the Gautreaux demonstration, part of the remedy achieved by a landmark desegregation lawsuit in Chicago. The Gautreaux research showed that children whose families moved from predominantly black neighborhoods of Chicago to integrated neighborhoods in the suburbs were substantially more likely to succeed in school and to go on to college or jobs.

Since then, considerably more research has explored both the consequences of living in a distressed community and the potential benefits of moving. Overall, the research evidence provides strong support for policies that promote housing mobility. But some findings raise questions or doubts about who is likely to benefit and how. And, not surprisingly, the research record remains inconclusive or incomplete in some respects.

How Neighborhoods Affect Our Lives

What is it about neighborhoods that affect the well-being and life chances of their residents? Social science suggests six important causal mechanisms — channels through which neighborhoods can shape or constrain opportunities. These six mechanisms make intuitive sense when we think about our own families and about the kinds of neighborhoods in which we want to live.
  • Local service quality. Many essential public and private services are delivered at the neighborhood level. Most of us think about the quality of public schools as an important factor in choosing a neighborhood, but distressed neighborhoods often lack decent grocery stores, reliable child care, engaging after-school activities, and healthy recreational facilities as well.
  • Shared norms and social control. In healthy neighborhoods, shared norms and values help control everybody’s behavior and teach children what is expected of them as they mature. Most of us would rather live in a neighborhood where other parents let us know when our children misbehave than one in which dealing drugs, dropping out of school, getting pregnant as a teenager or going to jail are seen as unexceptional or “normal.”
  • Peer influences. Young people are profoundly influenced by their immediate peer groups, which are often composed primarily of neighbors and schoolmates. And peers become especially important during the teen years, when they have the potential to fuel healthy competition over grades and athletics or to humiliate kids who do well in school and pressure them to join in on risky adventures.
  • Social networks. Adults often get help and support from the networks of people they know, including neighbors. Who we know (and who we get to know because of where we live) can be an important source of job leads, parenting support, or health advice and referrals.
  • Crime and violence. Living in a high-crime area increases risks for both adults and children, including the risk of being a victim of burglary or assault. But research increasingly suggests that exposure to crime and violence has more far-reaching consequences, including persistent anxiety and emotional trauma.
  • Job access. As jobs become increasingly decentralized in most metropolitan areas, some inner-city neighborhoods have become physically isolated from economic opportunity. Although few of us work in the same neighborhoods where we live, people who rely on public transportation may have real difficulty finding jobs that are accessible to poor, inner-city neighborhoods.

Consequences of Neighborhood Distress

A considerable body of social science research finds evidence that living in profoundly poor or distressed neighborhoods can have a significant impact on people’s well-being and longer-term life chances. These impacts — and the extent to which they have been rigorously studied — vary across different age groups.

Relatively little research has focused on how neighborhood distress affects infants and young children. But studies have found that having more affluent neighbors is associated with higher IQ for preschool kids; that preschool children living in low-income neighborhoods exhibit more aggressive behavior when interacting with others; and that elementary school performance is linked to neighborhood social and economic status.

Many more studies have focused on links between neighborhood environment and the social and economic well-being of adolescents. Young people from high-poverty and distressed neighborhoods are less successful in school than their counterparts from more affluent communities; they earn lower grades, are more likely to drop out, and less likely to go on to college. Kids from poor neighborhoods are also less likely to get jobs during and immediately after high school. Studies have also documented that neighborhood environment influences teens’ sexual activity and the likelihood that girls will become pregnant during their teen years. And finally, young people who live in high-crime areas have been found to be more likely to commit crimes themselves.

Adults may be influenced more by the neighborhood environments in which they grew up than by those in which they currently live. Nonetheless, some research has found evidence that distance from jobs reduces employment rates, particularly among lower-skilled adults.

Influence of Neighborhoods on Health

Since the 1980s, public health researchers and practitioners have been increasingly interested in the influence of neighborhood conditions on the health of residents. Individuals in lower socioeconomic positions (i.e., those with lower education, income and occupational status) tend to have higher rates of mortality and disease than individuals in higher socioeconomic positions. Additionally, research suggests that living in disadvantaged neighborhoods increases the risk of mortality and disease. This means that a poor person living in a disadvantaged neighborhood would tend to have worse health than a poor person living in a more prosperous neighborhood. Thus, improving neighborhood conditions might significantly improve population health. In an article published in the June 2003 Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Winkleby and Cubbin showed that deaths would hypothetically be reduced by about 20% among white, black and Mexican-American men and women if everyone had the same death rates as those people living in the neighborhoods with the most favorable socioeconomic conditions.

Possible mechanisms through which neighborhoods influence health may range from direct physical influences, such as exposure to toxic waste, to the cumulative stress associated with living in unsafe neighborhoods with limited resources. Additionally, since disadvantaged neighborhoods may limit opportunities for upward social mobility, neighborhoods may also influence health status by shaping socioeconomic attainment throughout the life course. In turn, the distribution of good health in society is strongly related to socioeconomic position, with those at the top of the socioeconomic ladder having better health than those at the middle and those at the bottom.

Living in disadvantaged neighborhoods may increase stress, which is associated with health problems such as cardiovascular disease. Stress may result, for example, from high exposure to violence. As landmark research by Arlene Geronimus has indicated, cumulative stress may in turn result in “weathering” or premature health deterioration. For example, the risk of hypertension and the risk of having a low birthweight baby may increase more rapidly with age among African American women than among white women, because the former are more likely to be systematically and chronically exposed to stressors such as poor neighborhoods and discrimination.

There is also increasing evidence that residents of poor and minority neighborhoods find it much harder to sustain healthy behaviors, not only because those neighborhoods have more limited opportunities (e.g., there are fewer open spaces where one can exercise and fewer grocery stores with a variety of healthy food choices), but also because they are the target of companies that promote unhealthy lifestyles. Tobacco, alcohol and fast food are disproportionately advertised and placed in primarily minority and low-income neighborhoods. In the October 2004 American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Block and colleagues reported that in New Orleans, the number of fast food restaurants per square mile was higher in neighborhoods with lower household median income and in neighborhoods with a larger proportion of African American residents. Thus, such disparities in neighborhood environment may contribute to the disparities we observe in health conditions, such as obesity, that are largely dependent on health behaviors — e.g., diet and physical activity.

A Note of Caution

Although a substantial (and growing) body of both theory and evidence points to the critical role of neighborhood in people’s lives, it would be a mistake to overstate these conclusions. More specifically, there are two important caveats to keep in mind in thinking about the evidence of neighborhood effects.

First, individual and family characteristics interact with neighborhood environment and play a hugely important role in shaping outcomes. Some people can withstand the disadvantages of even the most distressed environment; and some families can help their children succeed despite their surroundings. Other individuals and families, however, may be particularly vulnerable to neighborhood influences. And still others are likely to encounter serious problems regardless of the neighborhoods in which they live. It would be a mistake, therefore, to assume that neighborhood environment is the only important factor in a family’s life — or even the most important factor.

In addition, just because we observe a high incidence of a problem in high-poverty, distressed neighborhoods does not necessarily mean that the neighborhood environment actually caused the problem. It may simply mean that many families with problems ended up living in the same neighborhood, perhaps because housing is more affordable there or discrimination closed the door to other neighborhoods. This is the most common criticism raised by researchers who are skeptical about the evidence of neighborhood impacts. Consequently, the studies summarized here all use statistical techniques to control for individual and family characteristics, so as to measure the independent effect of neighborhood conditions on outcomes.

Benefits of Mobility

Now we turn to what research to date has found about the benefits of moving from a high-poverty, distressed neighborhood to a lower-poverty, more opportunity-rich neighborhood. Evidence on this issue is drawn from three primary sources:
  • Gautreaux demonstration – research conducted over many years (primarily by researchers at Northwestern University) on families who moved from poor, predominantly black neighborhoods in Chicago to racially integrated suburban communities.
  • Moving to Opportunity (MTO) demonstration – research conducted by researchers from a number of different institutions on a carefully controlled experiment to test the impacts of helping families move from high-poverty assisted housing projects (in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles) to low-poverty neighborhoods.
  • HOPE VI program – research conducted by the Urban Institute on what is happening to the original residents of five distressed public housing projects that are being demolished and replaced under HUD’s HOPE VI initiative.

The first key lesson from all three of these initiatives is that assisted housing mobility is feasible. Low-income families will apply for the opportunity to move to a better neighborhood. And many – though not all – succeed in using the combination of a voucher and some search assistance to find housing in lower-income and less racially segregated communities. For example, the share of MTO families who were successful in moving ranged from a low of 34% in Chicago to a high of 61% in Los Angeles.

Research to date clearly establishes that assisted housing mobility yields dramatic improvements in safety and security. Escape from crime and disorder is a primary motivation for families to participate in assisted housing mobility programs. For example, 53% of MTO applicants said that their most important reason for moving was to get away from drugs and gangs; another 29% gave this as their second most important reason.

Those who move end up in much safer neighborhoods. MTO research finds that moving with a regular voucher (which supplements what low-income families can afford to pay for rental homes and apartments in the private market but requires recipients to conduct their own housing search) — generally to intermediate-poverty neighborhoods — increased families’ perceptions of safety by 15.6 percentage points, while moving with an MTO voucher (to low-poverty neighborhoods) produced a 30.3 percentage point increase. We see similar gains among HOPE VI relocatees; in the Urban Institute’s sample, eight out of ten families who moved with vouchers see their new neighborhood as safer. And families place tremendous value on these improvements, telling interviewers what a relief it is not to worry every day about possible violence and to have the freedom to let children play outside.

We have mixed evidence on how moving to a better neighborhood may affect children’s educational achievement. Gautreaux research found dramatic benefits for children whose families moved to suburban neighborhoods. They were substantially more likely to complete high school, take college-track courses, attend college and enter the work force than children from similar families who moved to neighborhoods within Chicago.

So far, the MTO evidence is not as strong. Families have moved to neighborhoods with better schools, but – unlikely Gautreaux movers — relatively few have left central city school districts. Moreover, some MTO children continue to attend the same schools, despite the fact that their families have moved. To date, there is no evidence that MTO moves have led to better educational outcomes, possibly because so few children are attending significantly better schools, or because it may be too soon to see benefits.

HOPE VI relocatees who have moved with vouchers report improvements in the schools their children attend. They see the schools as safer and better quality, and they also report that their kids are having fewer problems at schools, including trouble with teachers, disobedience at school and at home, and problems getting along with other children.

Some of the early research on MTO families in individual sites suggested that young people whose families moved to low-poverty neighborhoods were engaging in less risky behavior and committing fewer crimes. In Baltimore, for example, moving to a low-poverty neighborhood was found to cut violent crime arrests among juveniles roughly in half. More recent and comprehensive data for all sites suggests that moving to a lower-poverty environment is indeed improving the behavior of teen-aged girls, but not boys.

Specifically, for girls aged 15 to 19 in MTO families there were significant reductions in risky behavior, especially in marijuana use and smoking, as well as a reduction in the share of girls working rather than attending school. MTO boys in this age range, however, exhibit significant increases in smoking and arrests for property crime. Research is currently under way to better understand what is happening to the boys, and why they do not seem to be enjoying the same benefits from mobility as girls. One possible explanation is that black and Hispanic boys moving to integrated or predominantly white neighborhoods are not engaging in any more criminal behavior, but are being arrested more due to racial profiling. Another possibility is that girls and boys respond differently to the loneliness and fears of relocation.

The current evidence on how mobility affects adult employment and earnings is mixed and still somewhat inconclusive. It is important to note that mobility assistance does not directly address employment problems, although it may remove barriers standing in the way of employment. As a consequence, employment effects may take more time to materialize than other outcomes. Long-term research on Gautreaux families has found significant increases in employment and reductions in welfare recipiency. To date, we see no statistically significant employment or earnings effects across the total sample of MTO families. When we look at the sites individually, we do see significant impacts on employment and earnings among MTO families in New York and Los Angeles, but it is not clear why there would be an impact in these sites and not in others.

Housing Mobility and Health

The MTO demonstration has shown improvements in the health of the MTO group, and in some instances also in the health of the regular Section 8 voucher group. The most recent follow-up study indicated a reduction in adult obesity among the MTO group. This effect is noteworthy because the prevention of obesity has emerged as a national public health priority. The United States is facing an epidemic of overweight and obesity, which disproportionately affects African Americans and Hispanics, as well as those with lower socioeconomic status. The prevalence of obesity among US adults is 30.5% and has increased markedly over the past decade. Obesity increases the risk of illness from some 30 serious medical conditions, results in approximately 300,000 premature deaths each year, and is associated with $117 billion in costs. In the MTO demonstration, reduction in obesity in adults may be partly due to healthier diets, as the MTO group showed increased consumption of fruits and vegetables.

MTO adults also showed significant improvements in mental health, including reductions in psychological distress and depression, and increasing feelings of calm and peacefulness. Improved mental health was also shown in the first MTO follow-up study in New York and Boston, as well as in the Yonkers study of scattered-site public housing. The consistency of these results across three different studies is encouraging. Improvements in mental health are not surprising given that fear of crime was the main reason why MTO participants wanted to move out of their neighborhoods. As discussed above, adults and children moving to low-poverty neighborhoods reported increases in their perception of safety and reductions in the likelihood of observing and being victims of crime. Considerable stress in the neighborhoods of origin may have also resulted from chronic exposure to poor-quality housing and schools, two additional reasons why participants looked forward to moving out of those neighborhoods.

In addition to improvements in adult mental health, girls in the MTO group, and in some instances also girls in the regular voucher group, reported improvements in their mental health, including reductions in psychological distress, depression and generalized anxiety disorder. As discussed above, girls aged 15-19 in the MTO group also had better health behaviors than their counterparts in public housing — e.g., lower rates of smoking and marijuana use.

Although the reductions in obesity and mental health problems are promising, we should also note that at the latest follow-up, the MTO demonstration did not find significant improvements in other health outcomes such as asthma, blood pressure, smoking and alcohol use, all of which could also be influenced by neighborhood conditions. Additionally, evidence from the Gautreaux mobility program indicated that suburban movers may be less satisfied with medical care, possibly because in those neighborhoods there may be fewer health care providers, or former residents of public housing may be less familiar with them. In MTO, among those eligible to move, some did not want to because they were afraid of losing access to health care in their neighborhood. Also, families with a disabled member were less successful in moving to low-poverty neighborhoods. This suggests that although more prosperous neighborhoods may offer some better opportunities to maintain good health, residents’ attachment to health care providers in disadvantaged neighborhoods may be a barrier to moving. Therefore, comprehensive mobility programs may need to address access to health care in their housing search counseling.

How Does It All Add Up?

Rigorous social science research convincingly shows that living in a severely distressed neighborhood undermines the health and well-being of both adults and children, and that moving to low-poverty areas is both feasible and beneficial. This evidence provides strong support for policies that help families move out of distressed neighborhoods and into lower-poverty communities. Ironically, although health improvements were not among the stated goals of MTO, they are currently among the most apparent gains realized by participating families, and MTO has provided some of the most compelling evidence to date that neighborhoods matter for health. In the long run, the positive effects of housing mobility on health may lead to improvements in other areas over the life course. For instance, healthier children may do better in school, and healthier adults may be able to hold better and more stable jobs. Additionally, the promise of housing mobility, if implemented at a large scale, may enhance population health, including contributing to reducing racial and ethnic disparities in health.

But research to date also highlights some limitations of assisted housing mobility. Not every family will be able to take advantage of mobility assistance, and not everyone who moves will necessarily benefit. It seems likely that the impact of mobility on educational achievement may depend on whether children actually change to significantly better schools (perhaps even better school districts), and that impacts on employment and earnings may occur indirectly and over a relatively long time horizon. Finally, as we learn more about how residential mobility works — and for whom — we should be looking for strategies to link mobility programs with other forms of assistance and support that families need to be stable and successful — including counseling for teens, job training and placement services, treatment for mental or physical health problems, and assistance with budgeting and financial management.

Margery Austin Turner , a member of PRRAC’s Social Science Advisory Board, is Senior Vice-President at The Urban Institute. Her research analyzes issues of residential location, racial and ethnic discrimination, and the role of federal housing policies in expanding opportunity and equity. She served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Research at HUD from 1993 through 1996, helping to launch three major social science demonstration projects assisting families from distressed inner-city neighborhoods gain access to opportunities through employment and education.

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