When the Poor Move, Do They Move Up?

Originally published in The American Prospect on April 6, 2016.
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When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April of 1968, the bill that would become the federal Fair Housing Act was at risk of stalling in Congress. King’s assassination, and the nationwide civil disturbances that ensued, helped the Act sail through the legislative process. Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law just two weeks later; today, in recognition of these transformative events, April has been designated National Fair Housing Month.

But the battle over the underlying aims of fair housing remains unfinished. Walter Mondale, one the Fair Housing Act’s primary sponsors, declared its objective to be the creation of “truly integrated and balanced living patterns,” and federal courts have interpreted that phrase to indicate that the elimination of racial segregation is a key aim of the 1968 law. Yet, 48 years later, the federal government still does very little to incentivize racially and economically integrated neighborhoods—chiefly because of the political peril involved, but also because scholars and housing experts have failed to resolve whether promoting integrated neighborhoods would even be desirable or beneficial. A wave of new research, however, is helping to settle the experts’ debate, and may pave the way to fulfilling the Fair Housing Act’s original promise.

Eric Chyn, an economist at the University of Michigan, recently published a housing mobility study that takes a long-term look at children who were forced out of Chicago’s public housing projects in the 1990s. Three years after their homes were demolished, the displaced families lived in neighborhoods with 25 percent lower poverty and 23 percent less violent crime than those who stayed put. Chyn finds that children who were forced to move were 9 percent more likely to be employed as adults than those who remained in public housing, and had 16 percent higher annual earnings. He suggests this could be partly due to the fact that displaced children had fewer criminal arrests in the long run and were exposed to less violence growing up than their non-displaced peers.

His study provides stronger evidence for the idea that moving to higher-opportunity neighborhoods is beneficial for the poor. In particular, Chyn’s study addresses an issue that housing policy researchers have been grappling with since the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) initiative—a large-scale experiment that involved moving randomly assigned families out of high poverty neighborhoods into census-tracts with less than 10 percent poverty. The experiment, which ran from 1994-1998, was devised to see if moving families improved their life outcomes. While relocation substantially lowered parents’ rates of depression and stress levels, MTO did not significantly improve their financial situation. However, researchers found that children who moved under the age of 13 were more likely to attend college and earned significantly more than similar adults who never moved.

Social scientists were left to question why the positive effects of relocation only seemed to appear for younger children. They also wondered whether the families that moved through MTO—all of whom voluntarily applied for vouchers in a lottery—shared characteristics that families who never applied lacked. Just a quarter of all families eligible to move through MTO applied for vouchers, and perhaps the experiment had some selection bias, effectively skewing the results.

By looking at Chicago’s public housing demolitions, Chyn was able to study the impact of moving on all families forced to relocate, not just those who volunteered to do so. Within this less select grouping, he finds that all children, including those who moved past the age of 13, experienced labor market gains as adults. This finding helps to reconcile some tensions in the neighborhood effects literature and suggests that MTO’s findings may be less reliable than previously understood.

Chyn concludes that his paper “demonstrates that relocation of low-income families from distressed public housing has substantial benefits for both children (of any age) and government expenditures.” Based on his results, Chyn suggests that moving a child out of public housing by using a standard housing voucher would increase the lifetime earnings of that child by about $45,000. He also argues that this policy would “yield a net gain for government budgets” since housing vouchers and moving costs are similar to project-based housing assistance.

But Chyn’s study—which focuses on Chicago’s projects in the 1990s—does not tell the whole story. In particular, it tells us little about what would happen if we involuntarily moved families out of public housing to racially segregated, slightly less impoverished neighborhoods today.

A series of economic trends and public policies significantly aided the poor during the 1990s—trends and policies that are nowhere in evidence today. As Paul Jargowsky, the director of the Center for Urban Research and Urban Education at Rutgers, has shown, in the ‘90s, the Earned Income Tax Credit was just being implemented, the minimum wage was increased, and unemployment dropped to 4 percent for a sustained number of years, which lead to real wage increases. The number of people living in high poverty neighborhoods between 1990 and 2000 dropped by 25 percent—from 9.6 million to 7.2 million.

“This [Chyn article] is a nicely designed study, but if you want to understand it, you have to understand everything else that was going on during that time period,” says Patrick Sharkey, an NYU sociologist who studies neighborhoods and mobility. Sharkey buys the finding that in this particular context, a forcible move may have actually helped kids growing up in Chicago in the 1990s, but he says to extrapolate those findings even to the current situation in Chicago, let alone other cities, would be a mistake. Chicago’s public housing during that period was widely recognized as the most violent, and troubled, in the entire country.

In an interview, Chyn says he agrees that Chicago “has some particular features that may limit how we can generalize” his findings, and acknowledges that the city’s public housing in the 1990s “was a particularly disadvantaged system.” He says that his results would best inform policy in other cities that have “high-rise, very dense, particularly disadvantaged public housing.”

Whatever its limitations, Chyn’s study adds to a substantial body of research on the effects that neighborhoods have on the children who grow up in them and their families. Given that most families with vouchers moved to neighborhoods that were only slightly less poor and segregated than the ones they’d left, there is reason to suspect that the labor market gains observed in both Chyn’s study and MTO represent just the lower bound of potential mobility benefits.

For example, 56 percent of displaced families in Chyn’s study still wound up in neighborhoods with extreme poverty, meaning census tracts with poverty levels that exceed 40 percent. The rest, nearly 44 percent of those displaced, moved to neighborhoods that were, on average, 28 percent impoverished—a poverty rate lower than the others, but still roughly twice the national average.

The fact that those who moved did better is not grounds to conclude that they are doing well. The average adult-age annual earnings for Chyn’s sample of displaced children was only about $4,315, compared to $3,713 for non-displaced children. (These numbers factor in the incomes of those who are unemployed.) Displaced children with at least some labor income as adults earned $9,437 on average, compared to $8,850 for non-displaced children.

In other words, while the labor prospects and earnings have improved for those who moved as children, they still remain quite poor.

Writing in The New York Times, Justin Wolfers, an economist, and one of Chyn’s thesis advisers, said these findings“could fundamentally reshape housing policy.” At minimum, they reinforce the growing body of evidence that suggests people who move into lower-poverty, racially integrated neighborhoods do better on a variety of social indicators than those who live in high-poverty, racially segregated ones. If our housing policy moves in a more integrative direction, that would be a fundamental shift.

Both Chyn and Raj Chetty, the lead researcher on long-term labor outcomes for children in MTO, have touted the cost-savings potential of moving families with standard housing vouchers. More important than these savings, though, is the question of whether these findings could spur a new commitment to integrative housing.

We know, based on research from sociologists like Sharkey, Stefanie DeLuca, and others, that poor, minority families are unlikely to relocate to whiter, more affluent neighborhoods without serious housing counseling and support. This kind of mobility assistance requires time and money—which the federal government currently does little to promote.

Over the past decade and a half, there has been a steep increase in the number of high-poverty neighborhoods—whose populations nearly doubled from 7.2 million in 2000 to 13.8 million by 2015. As Jargowsky has shown, this increase began well before the start of the Great Recession, and the fastest growth in the black concentration of poverty has been in metropolitan areas with 500,000 to 1 million people, not in the country’s largest cities.

Researchers are still exploring if it’s possible to improve the life outcomes of families that live in racially segregated, high-poverty neighborhoods through investments in those neighborhoods. For now, the evidence suggests that such investments are much less effective than mobility and integration (though, as DeLuca has noted, many such experiments have been underfunded or poorly designed). Chyn’s auspicious findings, released just in time for National Fair Housing Month, bolster the idea that moving families to neighborhoods with greater opportunity could significantly help the poor.

 

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