Concentrated Poverty and Happiness: New Research on Neighborhood Effects
Science published a study this week about the effects of the Moving to Opportunity housing voucher program, which allowed more than 4,000 low-income families to move from impoverished neighborhoods to mixed-income areas. The study, funded by the Russell Sage Foundation, found that the voucher recipients were happier than those who did not receive the subsidy. Here is the study's abstract:
Nearly 9 million Americans live in extreme-poverty neighborhoods, places that also tend to be racially segregated and dangerous. Yet, the effects on the well-being of residents of moving out of such communities into less distressed areas remain uncertain. Using data from Moving to Opportunity, a unique randomized housing mobility experiment, we found that moving from a high-poverty to lower-poverty neighborhood leads to long-term (10- to 15-year) improvements in adult physical and mental health and subjective well-being, despite not affecting economic self-sufficiency. A 1–standard deviation decline in neighborhood poverty (13 percentage points) increases subjective well-being by an amount equal to the gap in subjective well-being between people whose annual incomes differ by $13,000—a large amount given that the average control group income is $20,000. Subjective well-being is more strongly affected by changes in neighborhood economic disadvantage than racial segregation, which is important because racial segregation has been declining since 1970, but income segregation has been increasing.
In its story on the study, the Wall Street Journal explained the implications of rising economic segregation:
While moving to safer neighborhoods made a big difference in peoples' lives, however, moving to less racially segregated ones didn't. That is worrisome because even as the U.S. has become less racially segregated in recent decades, it has become economically segregated, with poor people increasingly concentrated in certain neighborhoods. From a quality-of-life standpoint, the researchers found, the increase in poverty concentration over the past 40 years has almost canceled out the gains in income among poorer Americans.
The New York Times asked some of the study's authors and other social scientists why the MTO program did not affect or increase recipients' economic or educational outcomes:
Professor [William Julius] Wilson said it was not surprising that education levels did not change significantly because many of the children who moved remained in the same school districts. And Lawrence Katz, an economics professor at Harvard and one of the study authors, said that the preference for educated workers was so strong that changing neighborhoods did not do much to improve job options for the participants, who were mostly African-American women without college educations.
Researchers said that though they did not know why people felt happier after moving, it probably had to do with feeling safer and less stressed. Nearly three-quarters of the families who signed up for the program said they had done so to get away from violence in dangerous neighborhoods.
Read the full report, which includes former Visiting Scholars Jens Ludwig and Greg Duncan among its authors. You can also read an interview with Ludwig about this and other research on neighborhood effects.
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