Originally published in The American Prospect on May 20th, 2015.
Over the past year, unrest in places like Baltimore and Ferguson has inspired a nationwide debate on how to best combat systemic inequality and injustice. In the wake of high-profile police violence cases in these cities and elsewhere, this conversation has contributed to a renewed understanding of how federal and local housing policies helped create the inequality and racial injustice urban America confronts today. Yet lost in this discussion has been the complicated record of more recent desegregation efforts and what they can teach us about undoing generations of systemic racism and persistent segregation.
A case-in-point is HUD’s Clinton-era Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program, the subject of a new study by Harvard economists Raj Chetty, Nathan Hendren, and Lawrence Katz. Focusing on MTO’s long-term economic impacts, the study sheds more positive light on a program long considered to be a failure.
Running from 1994-1998, MTO was a housing experiment that involved moving individuals out of high-poverty neighborhoods with vouchers and into census-tracts with less than 10 percent poverty to see if this would improve their life outcomes. The results were mixed. While critics of the program have dubbed it a failure for not significantly improving children’s school performance or the financial situation of their parents, there was a lot about it that proved successful. MTO yielded significant gains in mental health for adults, for instance, including decreased stress levels and lower rates of depression. It also greatly lowered obesity rates and improved the psychological well being of young girls.
The new Harvard study further bucks the notion that MTO failed. Instead of looking at MTO’s economic impact on parents, it looks at the adult earnings of their children. Such an analysis simply wasn’t possible to do a decade ago, given that the kids were still too young. Researchers now find that poor children who moved into better neighborhoods were more likely to attend college and earned significantly more in the workforce than similar adults who never moved. The researchers also ranked which cities were “the worst” in terms of facilitating upward mobility. Out of the nation’s 100 largest counties, the authors found, Baltimore came in dead last.
Many writers were quick to make the connection between Baltimore’s low chances for social mobility and the recent bouts of unrest surrounding the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray. However, few seemed interested in connecting the new Harvard study with the politics of why we have segregated communities and concentrated poverty in the first place.
Emily Badger’s Washington Post write-up of the study framed the ills people face in Baltimore as a city failure, rather than a state or federal one. She discusses the “downward drag that Baltimore exerts on poor kids” and says that Baltimore “itself appears to be acting on poor children, constraining their opportunity, molding them over time into the kind of adults who will likely remain poor.” Badger acknowledges that maybe this has to do with struggling schools and less social capital. “Change where these children live, though,” she writes, “and you might well change their outcomes.”
In The Wall Street Journal, Holman W. Jenkins Jr. looks at the new Harvard study and concludes, “Neighborhoods themselves are clearly transmitters of poverty. The problem for residents isn’t racism: it’s where they live.”
Such narrow portrayals of Baltimore and its residents are only possible if we exclude decades of state and federal policy from our frame of analysis. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute wrote something I suggest reading in its entirety. But to quote:
In Baltimore and elsewhere, the distressed condition of African American working- and lower-middle-class families is almost entirely attributable to federal policy that prohibited black families from accumulating housing equity during the suburban boom that moved white families into single-family homes from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s—and thus from bequeathing that wealth to their children and grandchildren, as white suburbanites have done.
Slate’s Jamelle Bouie traces not only how efforts to segregate Baltimore succeeded, but also how there’s never been a sustained attempt to undo them.
The simple fact is that major progress in Baltimore—and other, similar cities—requires major investment and major reform from state and federal government. It requires patience, investment, and a national commitment to ending scourges of generational poverty—not just ameliorating them.
Expanding housing choice vouchers is a good thing. We should have subsidies available to ensure that everyone has similar opportunities for mobility. That said, moving millions of impoverished families out of high-poverty areas would be nothing short of a logistical nightmare. In effect, mass relocation efforts would require low-poverty communities to relinquish some of their gatekeeping discretion—no small political fight. MTO tracked 4,600 families in five U.S. cities. As Reihan Salam put it, “It’s not at all clear that an MTO-style approach would work if we scaled it up to, say, 40,000 families in one city.” Nothing is impossible, but we cannot have a serious discussion about housing mobility as a broad anti-poverty strategy without frankly discussing the politics of racism and segregation.
Investing In Better Mobility Vouchers
So what does a more effective mobility strategy look like? A look to MTO’s own weaknesses may provide some clues. Indeed, for sociologists Stefanie DeLuca and Peter Rosenblatt, one problem with MTO was that it simply didn’t go far enough. Ina 2010 paper, they argue that while some students undoubtedly benefited from moving to wealthier communities, a lack of social capital, support, and resources, combined with housing vouchers that did not cover the cost of living in low-poverty communities, kept many students out of the highest-performing schools. At the same time, many families found that the obstacles created by poverty—like health problems and the chaotic nature of low-wage work—tended to follow them even as they left impoverished communities, and in turn contributed to poor student performance.
For DeLuca and Rosenblatt, there’s plenty that MTO did right but confronting endemic poverty and segregation requires a more systematic approach. That is, something perhaps more akin to the Baltimore Mobility Program (BMP), through which 2,400 Baltimore families have relocated since 2003. Whereas MTO offered housing search counseling to program participants, BMP provided that plus post-move counseling, second move counseling if necessary, and financial literacy and credit repair training. In another study released last year, DeLuca followed 110 BMP participants for nearly a decade, and found that over two-thirds of these families were still living in their integrated, low-poverty communities one to eight years after moving.
If MTO were to be a truly successful intervention, then expanding the program’s available services—including educational assistance, housing counseling, job support, and transportation help—would be important. We can’t know how the MTO participants would have fared if they had been given increased support, but we do know that additional services helped to make the transitions more surmountable and lasting for BMP families.
This chart by The Century Foundation shows how the MTO and BMP compare with Section 8 vouchers and the Gautreaux Project, a desegregation experiment that ended in 1990 and helped inspire MTO.
Needless to say, high-quality BMP vouchers are more costly than MTO and traditional Section 8 vouchers. Excellent mobility programs will require a real financial investment. As it is, there are long Section 8 waiting lists around the country, and local housing authorities currently receive fixed amounts from HUD to support voucher participants. Unless we significantly scale up funding, moving more people to affluent neighborhoods would mean moving fewer people overall through vouchers.
The findings from the new Harvard study are useful. They allow us to ask new kinds of questions. But in terms of policy, we must be wary of those who now suggest that simply uprooting families and planting them into new communities is the responsible thing to do—especially if we’re not ready to provide the supports that research has shown makes these types of moves more successful.
For example, in The National Review Jonah Goldberg writes, “Consider Baltimore. If you’re poor, it is a very bad idea to raise your kids there if you can avoid it.” He implicitly suggests that if you’re a good parent, if you care about your kid’s future, then you will leave Baltimore, or Detroit, or Philadelphia if you can. Let us hope that this policy conversation does veer into an ugly, parent-blaming one. Housing mobility vouchers are good options, but our best anti-poverty interventions shouldn’t have to demand that people abandon their social networks, churches, and communities if they want to stay. We should make high-quality vouchers available, but we should vigorously invest in the communities where poor people already live.
As Daniel Kay Hertz, a senior fellow at City Observatory pointed out to me, the Harvard study provides some new ammunition against those who have long doubted the effectiveness of a housing policy that puts integration front and center. Now there is some pretty strong empirical evidence that shows that children’s life chances were significantly affected by growing up within integrated environments. Additionally, these findings come on the heels of Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids, which traces the growing opportunity gaps between wealthy and poor children around the country. In light of these new high-profile studies, perhaps policymakers will more readily accept the idea that your access to the American Dream has everything to do with your race, class, and geographic location.
At the end of the day, Baltimore ranks last in the Harvard mobility study not because poor, black people live there, but because leaders in power made choice after choice, year after year, to ensure that poor blacks’ opportunities would be overwhelmingly constricted. We can and must make new choices now.