The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 8, 2013

Marching from Neighborhoods of Distress to Neighborhoods of Opportunity

August 8, 2013

“[Negro Americans] must march from the rat-infested, overcrowded ghettos to decent, wholesome, unrestricted, residential areas dispersed throughout our cities… They must march from the play areas and crowded and unsafe streets to the newly open areas in the parks and recreational centers." - Whitney Young, 1963

Beginning with the Great Migration of blacks from the rural south to northern and midwestern cities, racial segregation has excluded blacks and other minorities from neighborhoods that offer high-quality housing, schools, and other public services and has deprived predominantly minority neighborhoods of essential public services and private investments.

Segregation has also fueled the geographic concentration of poverty and the severe distress of very high-poverty neighborhoods. The evidence is indisputable that living in profoundly poor neighborhoods seriously undermines people’s well-being and long-term life chances. And new research by Patrick Sharkey finds that the damage stretches across generations. For example, children whose families lived in poor neighborhoods for two generations score dramatically worse on reading and problem-solving tests than those whose parents grew up in non-poor neighborhoods, other things being equal.

So what should we do about it? No single, one-dimensional program can do the job. But one part of the solution is to help poor families move out of severely distressed neighborhoods and into communities with high-performing schools; good services; and safe streets, parks, and playgrounds.

We’ve learned a lot in recent years about the effectiveness of this approach. In the 1990s, HUD launched the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) demonstration to find out whether poor families would be better off if they could move away from distressed, high-poverty housing projects to live in low-poverty neighborhoods. The demonstration found that, as a group, the MTO families did enjoy significantly better health and mental health than a control group but not higher employment, incomes, or educational attainment.

Some scholars and policymakers have taken these findings to mean that assisted housing mobility doesn’t work. But I disagree for two reasons. First, the health gains enjoyed by MTO families are hugely important. High rates of obesity, anxiety, and depression severely degrade a person’s quality of life, employability, and parenting abilities. Nobody should understate the value of a policy intervention that helps tackle these chronic health risks.

Second, one likely reason that MTO gains were limited to health outcomes is that the demonstration didn’t enable families to sustain access to high-opportunity neighborhoods. MTO families moved to better-quality housing and safer neighborhoods but few spent more than a year or two in low-poverty neighborhoods. My recent analysis finds that families who lived for longer periods in neighborhoods with lower poverty did achieve better outcomes in work and school, as well as in health.

The latest generation of mobility programs reflects these lessons and includes new elements like second-move counseling and hands-on help for families who need services and supports in their new neighborhoods. We need to keep experimenting, learning, and strengthening these programs. But in my view, assisted housing mobility has an essential role to play in a broader strategy to reverse the legacy of segregation, poverty concentration, and neighborhood distress that stunts opportunities for minority families.

Photo by Matt Rourke/ AP

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