By Elizabeth Julian (Click here to view the entire P&R issue)
This month Raj Chetty and his research “dream team” continued its groundbreaking, and indeed breathtaking, work on whether and how we might replace poverty with opportunity over the life of a low-income child. The release of “Creating Moves to Opportunity: Experimental Evidence on Barriers to Neighborhood Choice” brings us the latest from the Creating Moves to Opportunity research experiment involving low-income families in Seattle/King County seeking to use a federal housing choice voucher to obtain housing of their choice.
The research design is both rigorous and straightforward. Using a randomized controlled trial, the CMTO team sought to answer a question that has bedeviled social scientists, advocates, and policymakers for decades: why do the vast majority of low-income families tend to live in neighborhoods that offer limited opportunities for upward mobility? The researchers note that one common explanation is that low-income families prefer those locations for individual, personal reasons, such as proximity to family, affordable housing and jobs. An alternative explanation is that they do not move to higher opportunity areas because of barriers to making such moves. Under the research design, all families participating in both the control and treatment groups had the option to use their housing voucher in any neighborhood within the housing authorities’ jurisdictions.
The CMTO experiment concluded, based on an analysis of the quantitative data and qualitative evidence, that low-income families live disproportionately in low opportunity areas not because of strong preferences for such areas, but rather because of difficulty overcoming the barriers to accessing housing in higher opportunity locations. The CMTO team concluded that barriers in the housing search process are a “central driver of residential segregation by income,” and that those barriers are most effectively and efficiently removed by a high touch, personal intervention that supports the family in their search for housing in a higher opportunity neighborhood. The moves to high opportunity areas by members of the treatment group, who received the CMTO customized housing search assistance, increased to 54% compared to 14% of those in the control group, who did not receive those services.
The CMTO also looked at the efficacy of more standardized policy interventions such as increasing voucher payment standards in higher opportunity areas or informational interventions, and concluded that, at least in the Seattle area, the impacts were much smaller than that of the customized assistance in housing search provided in the experiment (though the reports notes that increased payment standards “may be necessary to facilitate such moves through CMTO-style programs, especially in expensive housing markets”). I would note that the Collison Ganong research on implementation of SAFMRs in the Dallas area show a more robust impact of such policy interventions, suggesting that tools that can be used to remove the barriers to voucher mobility choice are perhaps as multifaceted as the barriers themselves.
As part of a community that has been working in and around housing mobility for decades, both as a remedial tool for racial segregation in the public housing and Section 8 programs and as an anti-poverty/anti-economic segregation strategy since the mid-90s, I am thrilled to see the attention the Chetty team’s work has engendered across a wide swath of public awareness. As an old-time civil rights lawyer, I know how helpful it is to have both the law and the facts on your side. It is even more helpful for policymakers to have solid, persuasive evidence about what works and what doesn’t upon which to base their decisions as they go about the difficult task of redressing the racial and economic segregation that has blighted the life chances of so many children.
The intervention that the CMTO team found so effective is not a foreign one to mobility practitioners, particularly in the three largest and longest-running mobility programs in Chicago, Dallas, and Baltimore. Indeed, it would be fair to say that the concept of the personalized assistance to remove barriers to a client being able to find housing in higher opportunity areas is at the core of the “mobility counselor’s” work. While other “barrier removal” strategies can and do have an important effect, particularly if tailored to the particular circumstances of a housing market in which the families are searching, I am not surprised to see that the most important “assist” is one tailored to the individual families’ needs, from providing emotional support and encouragement, to brokering with landlords to take a chance on the family and/or the program, to short-term move-related financial assistance. Indeed, at a recent gathering at the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities to hear about the HUD Mobility Demonstration, a mobility counselor from the Baltimore program, who had been a participant in the program herself, spoke to that fact. In response to a question about the most important part of the program from her perspective as a participant, she cited the personal counseling and support at crucial times in her journey. While the research continues to identify and refine the most effective interventions to support a mobility move, the work being done by the non-experimental mobility programs will continue to add to the understanding of how barriers work and the tools that can be used to remove them in a variety of contexts. By my count, the three programs mentioned above, while not the product of a well-designed research experiment such as CMTO is undertaking, have helped over 10,000 low income families, most of whom are families of color, make moves to areas designated as ‘high opportunity” using a menu of opportunity metrics developed for those particular geographies. The effort to come up with the best way to define “opportunity areas” for anti-poverty purposes is an ongoing one, and the CMTO work is also adding tremendous value to that discussion, as will the experiences of the long-running mobility programs who have been operating in particular housing markets over several decades.
Given the powerful research of the past five years that shows that that low-income children who are able to move to and grow up in better resourced, higher opportunity neighborhoods will have significantly improved life chances, the predictive tools identifying the locations that are likely to offer those chances are as important as is understanding the most impactful strategies to getting them to those places. The Opportunity Atlas, developed by Chetty and his team based on their analysis of data for virtually every U.S. census tract and comparisons to the data from the HUD Moving to Opportunity experiment, has added a valuable perspective to the effort to ensure that the resources that are devoted to helping families achieve the benefits of an opportunity move are the right ones, and are effectively and efficiently used. Moving forward, it is important for mobility advocates to understand and appreciate the valuable contribution that the Chetty team, and other researchers, have made and will continue to make as we work to redress the scourge of segregation in the lives low-income children in our communities. Thanks to that work, an expanding cohort of mobility programs can move forward refining and improving the delivery of their services secure in the knowledge of the positive impact on the lives of the children who are afforded access to neighborhoods with greater opportunity. To use the language of the social impact investor, the Chetty research has moved a high opportunity move from an “output” to an “outcome”, and the implications for policy and practice at the intersection of race and poverty cannot be overstated.
Elizabeth Julian (ekjulian@ prodigy.net) is the former President of the Inclusive Communities Project in Dallas, and a PRRAC Board member. She is also a member of the technical assistance group “Mobility Works,” which assists PHAs in designing mobility programs.