The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has released its final report on the Moving to Opportunity program, an ambitious social experiment that offered more than 4,000 low-income families the chance to move to a better neighborhood. The report, funded in part by the Russell Sage Foundation, describes the impacts of the program 10 to 15 years after families enrolled. It offers compelling data to researchers interested in the ways neighborhoods affect the lives of poor individuals. In an earlier assessment of the program, sociologist Robert Sampson wrote that MTO helps answer the following policy questions: "Does the offer of a housing voucher to move to a non-poor neighborhood affect the later outcomes of the extremely poor? Does it do so for those who have grown up in poverty and arguably have already experienced its developmental effects?"
Launched in the mid-1990s, the MTO program offered housing vouchers to families below the poverty line and living in concentrated poverty (40% or greater) in five cities. Families that applied were randomly assigned to three groups: experimental, Section 8, or control. The experimental group received a housing voucher that had to be used to toward a residence in a neighborhood with less than 10% poverty. This group also received counseling and assistance. The Section 8 group received vouchers with no restriction on where they could move. The control group received no treatment.
The program showed mixed results. Here is an excerpt from the report's foreword:
Three important themes emerge from the MTO demonstration:
- Lower Poverty and Safer Neighborhoods:
- Mobility programs, which provide resources for families to move to a housing unit in a different location, result in families living in lower poverty neighborhoods. Both at the time of the move and at the final follow-up, families in the group that received rental housing vouchers without any restrictions (the "Section 8 group") and in the group that received vouchers and mobility counseling but could only use those vouchers in neighborhoods with poverty rates below ten percent (the "experimental group") lived in lower poverty neighborhoods than those in the group of families that enrolled in the demonstration but did not receive vouchers (the "control group"). The opportunity to move achieved an important goal of the participants: greater safety. Adults and female youths in both the Section 8 group and the experimental group felt safer in their neighborhoods than those in the control group.
- Better Health Outcomes:
- The study found that the opportunity to live in lower poverty neighborhoods was associated with better health outcomes. Women in the experimental group were less likely to have extreme obesity and diabetes compared to women in the control group. The women and their female children in the experimental group also experienced less psychological distress and major depression.
- No Better Educational, Employment, and Income Outcomes:
- Families in the experimental group did not experience better employment or income outcomes than the other families. The children in the Section 8 and experimental groups did not have better educational achievements than those in the control group and were not significantly less likely to engage in most forms of risky or criminal behavior. This finding leads to two important lessons.
- Mobility programs designed to give families access to greater opportunity may need to define opportunity more broadly than poverty rates or racial composition if improvements along these other dimensions are valued. Access to entry-level jobs, availability of high performing schools, and other neighborhood characteristics are additional factors that might need to be considered.
- A more comprehensive approach is needed to reverse the negative consequences of living in neighborhoods with heavily concentrated poverty. Housing is a platform for positive outcomes, but it is not sufficient alone for achieving these additional benefits.
Read the full report: Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing Demonstration Program, Final Impacts Evaluation. It was prepared by several scholars connected to the Russell Sage Foundation, including Lawrence F. Katz (a member of the Board of Trustees), Jens Ludwig (a former Visiting Scholar) and Greg Duncan (author of a number of RSF books).