Moving to Opportunity—or Not?
Where we live – and where our children grow up – matters. Plenty of research confirms this common-sense conclusion. Young children, teens, and adults who live in severely distressed and crime-ridden neighborhoods suffer in terms of health, safety, schooling, and employment.
The Moving to Opportunity demonstration (MTO) was launched in the early 1990s to find out what would happen if low-income families with kids could escape from distressed, high-poverty neighborhoods and move into healthy, low-poverty communities. MTO was inspired by an earlier experiment (the Gautreaux program) in which poor black families in Chicago moved to predominantly white, suburban neighborhoods. Findings from the Gautreaux experiment suggested that moving to an opportunity-rich neighborhood might lead to better educations for kids and better jobs for their parents.
New evaluation results show that – ten to fifteen years after their initial moves – MTO families do enjoy better health (compared to a control group), but not higher earnings or better test scores. Why not? One likely explanation is that MTO’s special mobility assistance didn’t enable families to gain and sustain access to high-opportunity neighborhoods. Although many moved to better housing in safer neighborhoods, few moved to neighborhoods served by high-performing public schools. And few spent more than a year or two in low-poverty neighborhoods. Rising rents, problems with landlords, and difficulty finding the next apartment all pushed families back to less desirable neighborhoods.
In other words, they didn’t really move to opportunity. It turns out that helping low-income families find, afford, and hang on to housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods requires more help than anticipated. Building on the lessons of MTO, mobility assistance programs in Dallas, Chicago, and Baltimore are now offering more hands-on help (with both the first move and subsequent moves) so families they serve can move to and stay in safe neighborhoods with good schools and abundant opportunities for both kids and adults.
It would be a mistake to conclude from the latest MTO findings that neighborhoods aren’t a factor in employment or school success. But researchers need to dig deeper to figure out whether the MTO families who spent more time in better neighborhoods enjoyed better outcomes so policymakers have the facts they need to design the next generation of housing assistance programs.