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Overcoming Concentrated Poverty and Isolation (Executive Summary)

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Document date: July 29, 2005
Released online: July 29, 2005

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

Executive Summary

Low-income families that live in distressed, high-poverty neighborhoods face especially daunting challenges as they attempt to leave welfare, find jobs, earn an adequate living, and raise their children. In these neighborhoods, crime and violence are common, jobs are scarce, schools are often ineffective, and young people see few opportunities for success. An extensive and growing body of social science research indicates that living in these high-poverty communities undermines the long-term life chances of families and children—cutting off access to mainstream social and economic opportunities. Neighborhood distress—and its consequences for families—constitutes a serious, long-term challenge to public policy.

During the 1990s, the Department of Housing and Urban Development launched three rigorous research demonstrations testing alternative strategies for helping low-income families escape the isolation and distress of high-poverty, central-city communities. These initiatives reflected three prevailing views about how best to tackle the problem of concentrated poverty:

  • Residential Relocation. The Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing Demonstration (MTO) helped families move from high-poverty public and assisted housing developments to healthy, low-poverty neighborhoods using housing vouchers and search assistance.
  • In-Place Services and Incentives. The Jobs-Plus Community Revitalization Initiative (Jobs-Plus) saturated public housing developments with high-quality employment services and rent-based financial work incentives.
  • Suburban Job Linkage. The Bridges to Work demonstration (BtW) helped residents of high-poverty, central-city communities find and retain jobs in opportunity-rich suburban areas by recruiting employers and providing transportation assistance.

All three of these demonstrations were carefully designed to include rigorous controls and systematic data collection so that their implementation and impacts could be systematically evaluated. And all three are now generating provocative results that offer new insights for ongoing program experimentation and policy development.

The problems of concentrated poverty, economic isolation, and distress that MTO, Jobs-Plus, and BtW were designed to tackle all persist today. This report summarizes findings from the three demonstrations and draws crosscutting lessons for ongoing innovation and action at federal, state, and local levels.

Demonstration Findings

MTO, Jobs-Plus, and BtW represent serious investments in rigorous research by HUD, foundations, the implementing organizations, and researchers. This investment clearly paid off—not necessarily with the expected results, but with significant new insights on strategies for tackling concentrated poverty and isolation. The demonstrations have produced important evidence about the strategies they tested—including evidence about which aspects of those strategies worked and for whom, as well as evidence about what it takes to implement these strategies effectively.

Moving to Opportunity dramatically improved neighborhood conditions for participating families, which led to better mental and physical health for adults and to reductions in risky behaviors among teenage girls. In particular, the incidence of obesity and depression were significantly reduced among MTO movers. However, MTO boys may be experiencing worse emotional and behavioral outcomes than their counterparts who remained in public housing. In addition, MTO had significant but small effects on the characteristics of the schools children attended, although most families remained within the same central-city school district. Employment, earnings, and welfare recipiency have not yet been significantly affected by participation in MTO, although exploratory analysis suggests that MTO families that moved to stable, racially mixed neighborhoods may be earning more.

Jobs-Plus produced substantial increases in residents' earnings, significantly above gains achieved by residents in comparison developments. These impacts were most evident in the three of five demonstration sites where all intervention components were fully implemented. Jobs-Plus also appears to have had positive impacts on residents' employment rates. Specifically, two-thirds of Jobs-Plus's earnings effects are attributable to increased employment, while one-third are attributable to some combination of increased work hours and increased wages. However, Jobs-Plus appears to have had no impact on welfare recipiency, which dropped substantially (but equally) for both treatment and control groups. And the increased individual and development earnings did not yield improvements in overall community health or well-being.

The Bridges to Work demonstration encountered major implementation challenges, in part because the robust economic conditions of the late 1990s reduced the number of "job-ready" adults who needed assistance in finding employment. As a result, local agencies had to expand their service areas, making the suburban commutes much longer than originally anticipated. And supplemental services intended to help recipients retain jobs in the suburbs were not fully implemented. As a result, BtW cannot be viewed as a fully effective test of its original vision. Participants generally used the program services for only a few months and experienced no significant benefits relative to the control group. More specifically, BtW did not improve either the employment or the earnings of central-city job seekers. The only measurable impact was among participants receiving welfare, who were able to get jobs with better pay and benefits than comparable job-seekers without access to BtW services.

Lessons for Policy and Practice

The experience of these three carefully designed experiments and the results emerging from rigorous research on their impacts offer new insights for ongoing policy development and programmatic innovation. Specifically, we draw ten broad lessons from the experience of the three demonstrations, including lessons about the potential for success, about the realities families face, about implementing complex strategies, and about obstacles to success:

Lessons about the potential for success

1. Place-conscious interventions can make a big difference for families and children—they are worth the effort and the cost.

2. Families will respond to real opportunities and choice—programs don't have to be mandatory to have an impact.

3. Achieving meaningful change requires sustained effort over several years.

Lessons about the realities families face

4. Most low-income families work—at least intermittently.

5. People move a lot, but not necessarily to better neighborhoods or because they want to move.

6. Neighborhood crime and violence inflict horrible damage on children and families.

Lessons about implementing complex strategies

7. Implementation partnerships are hard but not impossible.

8. Interventions have to be focused—but not one-dimensional—if they intend to help families transform their lives.

Lessons about obstacles to success

9. The needs of men and boys demand special attention.

10. We cannot ignore barriers of racial prejudice, discrimination, and segregation.

The crosscutting lessons from MTO, Jobs-Plus, and BtW should enable policymakers and practitioners to move forward more intelligently on three basic fronts: (1) encouraging and assisting low-income families to move to safe, opportunity-rich neighborhoods; (2) saturating assisted-housing developments in high-poverty neighborhoods with quality employment services and supports, delivered on-site in conjunction with rent rules that encourage and support work; and (3) helping low-income workers who live in high-poverty neighborhoods find and keep jobs in opportunity-rich areas. These three strategies should not be considered competing alternatives, but rather complementary approaches. In some circumstances, it may make sense to pursue two or three at the same time, while in others, one of the three strategies may be particularly well-suited to local needs and market conditions.

Although the current budget and policy environment seriously limits opportunities to consider broad new federal initiatives, many opportunities for action exist within current federal programs. This is particularly true for public housing agencies with HOPE VI funding or the regulatory flexibility offered by the Moving to Work (MTW) demonstration. In addition, state and local governments could launch a new round of experimentation and learning by targeting small-scale initiatives to selected communities. And philanthropic foundations clearly have a continuing role to play in fostering innovation, collaboration, and capacity building.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

Topics/Tags: | Cities and Neighborhoods | Race/Ethnicity/Gender

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