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Massive housing experiment finds those who moved to less-impoverished neighborhoods were happier

In the mid-1990s, thousands of families living in public housing, including nearly 700 adults from some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, took part in a federal housing voucher program designed to test whether moving families to a less impoverished place would improve their lives.

The bold social experiment, called Moving to Opportunity , was intended to subject public policy to the same kind of trial that is the gold standard in medicine. Now, a new analysis by a team of top social scientists suggests that while the $80 million program didn’t lift people out of poverty, it had a profound and measurable effect on their happiness.

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For every 13-percentage-point decrease in the neighborhood poverty rate, people reported an increase in their well-being equivalent to a $13,000 increase in annual income. That’s the equivalent of a two-thirds increase in the income of the families in the study, the authors calculated.

People who used vouchers to move to neighborhoods with less poverty also experienced improvements in mental health and a strong suggestion of benefits to physical health. Their household incomes did not improve, however.

Surprisingly, the level of racial integration in a neighborhood did not matter nearly as much as the rate of poverty when it came to residents’ happiness.

“The bigger the change in poverty that you got through a move, the bigger the improvement in well-being and health,” said Lawrence Katz, an economics professor at Harvard University who has led the long-term evaluation of Moving to Opportunity. “If you stay in a poor neighborhood, but it’s more racially integrated, it doesn’t seem to have big effects. ... Being in a really poor neighborhood has adverse effects, regardless of the racial composition.”

The 15-year study, sponsored by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, reflected the attention in the early 1990s to urban policy issues and the plight of inner city neighborhoods, driven in part by the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. It also presented an opportunity to answer scientific and policy questions that had been mounting since the Victorian era: does living in a distressed neighborhood cause residents to have lower education, a greater likelihood of being involved in crime, worse health, and lower economic achievement? Or do the greater rates of those outcomes reflect something about the people drawn to those neighborhoods?

In 1994, families living in public housing in which more than 40 percent of residents were below the federal poverty threshold were given the opportunity to enter a lottery. Over four years, almost 5,000 families from Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles enrolled and were randomly assigned to three groups. Some received vouchers, which could be used to subsidize rents at private apartments, that required them to move to neighborhoods where the poverty rate was below 10 percent. Others received traditional vouchers that allowed them to move wherever they wanted, and a third group stayed in public housing. The Boston participants were living in housing projects in East Boston, Mission Hill, and South Boston.

While many observers had hoped that there would be a clear and obvious difference in income and other variables for those who moved to better neighborhoods, previous findings published over the last 15 years have told a more complicated story. Moving to a less-poor neighborhood was associated with reductions in extreme obesity and diabetes. Adults experienced improvements in mental health. Among their children, girls experienced less harrassment, fear, and pressure to have sex than girls who remained in public housing, but boys seemed to stay in the same social networks. And the hoped-for economic differences between those who moved and those who remained in poor neighborhoods did not emerge.

But the authors and outside researchers said the new study, published in the journal Science, clearly demonstrates that moving out of a neighborhood of extremely concentrated poverty had quantifiable benefits.

“The finding is important because it provides rigorous scientific evidence for the theoretical assumptions we’ve had about the effects of neighborhoods on well-being,” said William Julius Wilson, a Harvard sociologist whose 1987 book, The Truly Disadvantaged, argued that increasing poverty concentration in inner cities had harmful effects. “It’s good to see increasing attention to the adverse effects of growing income segregation, because this has not been high on [receiving] public policy attention.”

To assess residents’ well-being, the study used their own assessments, and responses to questionnaires that included questions, such as: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days -- would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” People who were given the vouchers reported feeling safer during the day, having fewer housing problems, and were more likely to have friends with college degrees.

By comparing the responses with national surveys of happiness and income, the researchers were able to calculate that the increase in well-being reported by those who moved to less poor neighborhoods correlated with an increase in income. The researchers used questionnaires and some physical measurements and found their mental health improved and there was a suggestion of benefit to their physical health.

Robert Ellickson, a professor of property and urban law at Yale Law School had argued, based on earlier findings from the study, that living among other poor people might not be a significant disadvantage. He said the new findings caused him to change his mind.

“This is a significant finding, and most positive about the beneficial effects of people who move from a poor neighborhood to a richer neighborhood,” Ellickson said. “I would have to say I could not say the same thing now. The latest news from the Moving to Opportunity studies suggest some benefits.”

Social scientists said the program was not just a test of how housing vouchers might be best designed. The finding that neighborhoods can affect people’s well-being shows that improving impoverished communities could have a beneficial effect on residents. For example, the prime reason that families reported for entering the lottery was the desire to flee gangs and drugs.

“That turns out to be hopeful news, because neighborhood safety is something you can do something about” without having to dismantle poor neighborhoods, said Jens Ludwig, a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago, who led the study.

Wilson noted that measures as simple as finding ways to eliminate vacant lots and buildings would likely have important benefits.

Since the study found that racial segregation in a neighborhood had less of an effect on well-being than income segregation, Ludwig said that suggests mixed income housing might help those on the bottom rung.

Katz noted that the study clearly shows benefits of a less-poor neighborhood, but also highlights the limitations of simply moving to a less distressed place. Even as families were able to move to neighborhoods with less poverty, they still remained mostly outside of neighborhoods with better schools, so childrens’ access to better schools improved only by a small fraction.

“It doesn’t overcome lack of education and training; it doesn’t overcome the poor schools the kids are in,” Katz said. “There are other promising interventions that one would want to combine with this.”

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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