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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We Can’t Talk About Housing Policy Without Talking About Racism

Originally published in The American Prospect on May 20th, 2015.
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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.

From “Finding Home: Voices of the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program,” a report by The Century Foundation.

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.