If low-income families living in distressed public housing move to higher-income neighborhoods, would that help them move out of poverty? In the 1990’s, HUD’s Moving to Opportunity Demonstration (MTO) began testing the idea by targeting some of the worst public housing communities; these developments were chronically disadvantaged, dangerous places with high crime, drug dealing, and disorder. The hope was that giving families vouchers and help to move to less poor neighborhoods would help parents to access better jobs and children to do better in school.
I’ve been part of the large group of researchers extensively tracking and studying the MTO experiment over the past two decades—and the story that has emerged is far more complex than any of the policy makers who designed the demonstration could have anticipated. Almost all the MTO families who moved ended up in moderately poor, minority neighborhoods, not the resource-rich white suburban communities that planners had envisioned. These urban communities had less crime, but not strong schools or access to jobs and the findings about how the move affected families have been mixed. Recently, Ron Kessler from Harvard and his colleagues released a new analysis in JAMA exploring the most puzzling finding from MTO: adolescent girls who moved to lower poverty neighborhoods had much better mental health outcomes, but adolescent boys actually fared about the same or even worse than those who stayed in public housing.
While the report offers more insight into exactly how the neighborhood environment affected adolescent mental health, the gender differences in outcomes for MTO adolescents are old findings. Kessler’s work adds new details, showing that boys who moved experienced higher rates of PTSD and conduct disorders. But what we need is insight into why girls benefit while boys struggle.
My colleagues and I have been exploring this gender puzzle since the MTO Interim evaluation first documented this difference more than a decade ago. We interviewed more than two hundred families in three of the MTO cities—Boston, New York, and Los Angeles about their experiences. For girls, moving out of distressed public housing meant escaping from “the female fear”—the ever-present threat of sexual harassment, pressure, and violence. Girls who moved talked about being less anxious and having more freedom to move around their neighborhoods.
The story for boys was more complicated; many had trouble forming connections in their new neighborhood and frequently returned to their old housing development. They had conflicts with kids in their new communities and schools who viewed them as outsiders and potential threats. Some hid out in their homes to avoid confrontation, spending their time alone, playing video games and watching TV. Though some of this gender difference may be attributable to differences in social skills, it also reflects the struggles young men of color face in too many communities.
The White House is partnering with philanthropy to improve access to opportunity for young boys and men of color. The findings from MTO underscore the need better understand and solve these challenges. But we cannot disregard the needs of “marginalized girls” still living in distressed communities. Few of them will have the chance to make the moves that helped the MTO girls. To address the needs of adolescent boys and girls in distressed communities, strategies must benefit them both.