Don't Move Poor Families Out. Improve Their Neighborhoods.

Don't Move Poor Families Out. Improve Their Neighborhoods.

There is a renewed legislative effort to improve federal fair housing regulations by removing barriers that limit the ability of low-income families to move to better neighborhoods. A supportive New York Times editorial claimed that a “2015 Harvard study inspired the legislation.”

That study reevaluated the Move to Opportunity (MTO) program, a research demonstration that was conducted in five cities: Chicago, Baltimore, New York, Boston, and Los Angeles. MTO provided housing vouchers to randomly selected participant families, enabling them to move to better neighborhoods. It then measured the effects of subsidies that enabled families living in high-poverty neighborhoods to move to low-poverty neighborhoods. Initial evaluations a decade ago found little in the way of lasting effects.

The more recent Harvard study reached different conclusions. These researchers extended the observations out a few years and analyzing the effects on younger and older children separately. The Times editorial on the study concluded, “these moves increased the adult earnings of children in all five cities … and this was true for whites, blacks and Hispanics, for girls as well as boys.”

It may be quite warranted to support fair housing laws. But a closer look at the Harvard study’s findings indicate that there was no overall positive impact on the future earnings of children — and likely adverse impacts on black boys with nonresidential biological fathers.

The problem is that the positive finding is solely for children younger than 13 years old. However, 30 percent of the children were 13 to 18 years old. For them, the impact was decidedly negative. As a result, whereas for the younger children the average increased earning for 2008–2012 was an impressive $1,624, for all children it was a statistically insignificant $302.

The editorial also highlighted that the benefits for younger children were found in all cities and for all demographic groups. Once again, however, a closer look, finds substantial disparities. Earnings increased by $4,020 for younger white and Asian children and by $3,306 for younger Hispanic children. By contrast, the benefits were only $627 for younger black children. In Chicago and Baltimore, where the study comprised only black families, the benefits to younger children equaled $500. In Boston and Los Angeles, where half of the families were non-black, the benefits equaled $2,700. 

For older children, earnings declined for all groups. This was especially true for boys. Whereas the decline was only $204 for girls, it was $1,832 for boys. For black families, the average decline for older children was greater than the meager gains for young children. This was most striking for Chicago. There, the gains for younger children equaled $681 but the losses for older children were $2,336. In a separate study, the research team found that black children benefit from voluntary, unsubsidized, permanent moves to higher income neighborhoods. However, their MTO findings suggest that subsidized, non-permanent moves to better neighborhoods, on balance, were harmful to black boys.

The deleterious impact these programs have on black children is consistent with earlier observations by Robert Sampson in his seminal study of Chicago. He noted that the new neighborhoods that black families moved to had less poverty but otherwise similar schools and community infrastructure, and that their housing was in pockets of poverty. Sampson also pointed out that within six years, half of the families had moved back to high-poverty neighborhoods. Black boys had much more adverse consequences than black girls. As Sampson noted, unlike white low-poverty neighborhoods, these so-called “better” black neighborhoods were surrounded by high-poverty areas. As a result, many children would invariably have social ties similar to those in their old neighborhoods. Sampson contended that this interaction across neighborhood lines helps explain why low-poverty black neighborhoods have higher crime rates than similar low-poverty white neighborhoods.

Adding to the adverse consequences for black boys are the familial strains created by moves. Due to sequential partnering, the majority of black mothers with more than one child have more than one father. For the children from previous relationships, interactions with their biological fathers are often tenuous. On the one hand, as Berger, Cancian, and Meyers document, mothers in new relationships are often reluctant to have their children from previous relationships maintain substantial interaction with their biological fathers. On the other hand, fathers are often in new relationships with new children and leave behind their children from previous relationships. 

The increased travel time to visit children in their new neighborhoods is just one more factor that weakens interactions; and studies consistently find that this has particularly adverse effects on boys. Besides the family chaos and emotional problems, the lack of father involvement consistently lowers the educational development of young children. One study reported that “fathers’ engagement with children in learning activities predicted children’s 5th grade academic performance after controlling for early and later father residency and children’s report of the quality of their relationship with fathers or father ļ¬gures.”

Sampson suggests that we should focus on efforts to improve high-poverty neighborhoods, not on efforts to move families out. Rather than requiring owners to set aside some units for low-income families in their newly constructed buildings in better neighborhoods, they should be expected to build a much greater number of these subsidized units in high-poverty neighborhoods. Without bettering disadvantaged neighborhoods, middle-class families will have no reason to stay, leading to an ever-increasing poverty concentration.

Finally, Sampson argues that high-poverty black neighborhoods can also be improved through social efficiency — advancing an environment in which individuals take community-related actions. The development of social efficiency can be aided by non-profit orcganizations. Expansion of fatherhood programs can also go a long way to improve the outcome for children, regardless of the neighborhoods in which they live.

It is fine to support fair housing, but if we want to improve the lives of all poor children, these alternative policies should also be given serious consideration.

Robert Cherry is economics professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

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