The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 15, 2014

Practical steps to improve the life chances of poor children

October 15, 2014

Too often, federal programs designed to help low-income families pay for housing end up subsidizing them to live in distressed and dangerous neighborhoods. A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) finds that nearly 4 million children are in families that receive federal rental assistance. Almost one in five of these kids lives in a neighborhood of extreme poverty (where over 40 percent of all residents are poor). And only 15 percent live in low-poverty neighborhoods (where less than 10 percent of residents are poor).

Where we live, and especially where our kids grow up, matters. The evidence is indisputable that living in severely distressed, high-poverty neighborhoods seriously undermines children’s well-being and long-term life chances. And recent research finds that the damage stretches across generations. For example, children whose parents grew up in high-poverty neighborhoods score dramatically worse on reading and problem-solving tests than those whose parents grew up in non-poor neighborhoods, other things being equal.

The federal Housing Choice Voucher program, which helps families pay for private rental homes and apartments in neighborhoods of their choice, performs much better in this regard than programs that subsidize the construction and operation of low-income housing projects. But even the voucher program falls short of its potential. CBPP reports that a quarter of a million children whose families receive federal housing vouchers live in neighborhoods of extreme poverty.

The CBPP report offers four evidence-based recommendations for improving neighborhood outcomes in the federal Housing Choice Voucher program:

  1. HUD should provide incentives for the local agencies that administer the program to reduce the share of families using vouchers in extreme-poverty areas and increase the share living in low-poverty, high-opportunity areas.
  2. HUD should update its policies and oversight to explicitly discourage families from using their vouchers in extreme-poverty neighborhoods.
  3. HUD should encourage agencies operating within the same metro area to unify—or at least coordinate—their programs so that families can more easily move between jurisdictions. (A more radical approach would be to mandate regionwide administration of the voucher program).
  4. State and local governments should encourage landlords in low-poverty neighborhoods to participate in the federal voucher program and help voucher families find housing in these neighborhoods that meets their needs.

Helping poor families with kids move to—and stay in—safe, opportunity-rich neighborhoods will pay off over the long term. 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. And more recent analysis finds that families who lived for longer periods in neighborhoods with lower poverty achieved better outcomes in work and school, as well as in health.

On their own, reforms to the Housing Choice Voucher program won’t entirely solve the complex challenges of neighborhood poverty and distress. But federal subsidies shouldn’t be paying for poor kids to grow up in neighborhood environments that undermine their chances for a healthy and successful future.

Photo: A grocery store in a low-income neighborhood in Washington, DC. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)  

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