Urban Wire Can behavioral science help voucher families reach better neighborhoods?
Martha M. Galvez
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Throughout September, Urban Institute scholars will offer evidence-based ideas for programs and policies public housing agencies can test through HUD’s Moving to Work Demonstration.

Neighborhoods matter for low-income families. Research shows that young people who grow up in low-poverty areas experience gains in physical and mental health, education, income, and employment. But most housing voucher holders live in racially and economically isolated areas, never reaching the neighborhoods that could help improve their future prospects.

This in mind, The US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) upcoming expansion of the Moving to Work demonstration (MTW), which will grant 100 new public housing authorities (PHAs) the policy and funding flexibility to test innovative programming, should prioritize efforts to improve location outcomes for voucher holders. In particular, HUD should use the MTW expansion to explore new ways to help voucher holders move to opportunity-rich neighborhoods—with a focus on improving how PHAs communicate.

Voucher holders face several obstacles to moving to low-poverty areas: moving is expensive, program rules are complicated, affordable units are scarce, opportunity-rich neighborhoods may be unfamiliar, and discrimination against voucher holders is legal in most jurisdictions. Intensive, individualized counseling and financial supports have helped some voucher holders reach or stay in high-opportunity areas, and evidence suggests that car access can facilitate neighborhood mobility. But these are expensive, challenging interventions. We shouldn’t give up on them—especially for families in the highest-poverty areas—but it is time to explore new, less expensive ways to encourage mobility.

Much attention has been paid to “light-touch” behavioral science–based approaches to social service delivery, often with the goal of improving take-up rates or program outcomes. For example, behavioral science research shows that poverty carries a psychological cost: internalized feelings of stigma and shame, which can negatively affect self-confidence and self-efficacy. In contrast, positive cues, such as asking people to think and talk about their past successes, can inspire confidence and motivate low-income people to take action toward new goals. The US Department of Health and Human Services’ Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency effort is testing ways to incorporate this knowledge into interactions with participants in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to encourage more engaged and successful job searches.  

The same behavioral science–based approach could work for housing. Behavioral science emphasizes that communication should be clear, direct, and avoid information overload—particularly with low-income people. Clarity should be the norm for communicating with anyone, but research shows that the daily stress of chronic poverty can significantly affect behavior and decisions by increasing people’s “cognitive load” and depleting their mental bandwidth. The ways that information and options are relayed to low-income families may be even more important than for higher-income people.

But for the most part, housing policy has not incorporated these insights from behavioral science, and PHAs fail to acknowledge how voucher holders’ experience of poverty may affect voucher moves. Opportunities to encourage better voucher location outcomes may lie with first improving how PHAs communicate with voucher holders about mobility:

  • Simplify everything and emphasize mobility. PHAs, with HUD guidance, can streamline communication and create new opportunities to give voucher holders mobility-related information through forms, websites, or other materials. All voucher holders attend mandatory orientation sessions, which are typically dense and long. HUD can have PHAs test stripped-down orientations with more supportive and practical exchanges of information about housing options that help voucher holders set mobility goals.
  • Communicate useful information in new and accessible ways. Text messages can relay information about available housing, links about school open houses in high-opportunity areas, or resources for transportation, moving costs, or search support. Or, text messages can remind and encourage voucher holders of their housing and mobility goals. 

We know that the stress, trauma, and stigma of poverty can affect how low-income households approach goals and decisions, and that sometimes, improved and strategic communication can improve key outcomes. This likely carries over to voucher holders. More research and experimentation is needed to understand how to incorporate these insights into PHA interactions with voucher holders, but some starting points already exist. The MTW expansion is an opportunity to explore new approaches informed by behavioral science to encourage moves to high-opportunity neighborhoods. 

Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center