Using data from Moving to Opportunity, a unique randomized housing mobility experiment, researchers found that moving from a high-poverty to lower-poverty neighborhood leads to long-term (10- to 15-year) improvements in adult physical and mental health and subjective well-being, despite not affecting economic self-sufficiency.
As President/CEO of Beyond Shelter at the time, I participated in the Moving to Opportunity demonstration project in Los Angeles in the mid-1990′s, one of five cities across the country involved. This provided the opportunity to help develop the final design of the MTO program at meetings of the grantees in Washington, D.C. prior to its implementation. I therefore have read with interest some of the articles and research that have been published on MTO over the years.
Although a wonderful concept that had the potential to change millions of lives for the better, problems with the MTO program were apparent from the beginning – and must rest squarely on the orginal model. I have posted some of the early research findings on MTO on this website and will weigh in with some of my own interpretations of the impact of MTO in future writings (including the fact that the large public housing projects today are now in the slow process of being dismantled). Nevertheless, I wanted to share this newest article immediately, because I think it is significant in light of the known impact of mental health on people’s capacity to be engaged, have hope, and keep moving forward…..when the challenges presented to them daily would stop most of us in our tracks! We also have studies from Beyond Shelter’s Housing First Program that measure depression in parents both before and after moving into permanent housing in neighborhoods that were most often vast improvements over their previous environments.
The latest report from MTO - Neighborhood Effects on the Long-Term Well-Being of Low-Income Adults - is published in Science Magazine (and requires purchase), but here is a synopsis:
Nearly 9 million Americans live in extreme-poverty neighborhoods, places that also tend to be racially segregated and dangerous. Yet, the effects on the well-being of residents of moving out of such communities into less distressed areas remain uncertain. Using data from Moving to Opportunity, a unique randomized housing mobility experiment, we found that moving from a high-poverty to lower-poverty neighborhood leads to long-term (10- to 15-year) improvements in adult physical and mental health and subjective well-being, despite not affecting economic self-sufficiency. A 1–standard deviation decline in neighborhood poverty (13 percentage points) increases subjective well-being by an amount equal to the gap in subjective well-being between people whose annual incomes differ by $13,000—a large amount given that the average control group income is $20,000. Subjective well-being is more strongly affected by changes in neighborhood economic disadvantage than racial segregation, which is important because racial segregation has been declining since 1970, but income segregation has been increasing.
HealthDay News just published an article on the impact of MTO on children in the study (Impact of Neighborhood on Mental Health of Teenage Girls) – and here is Lindsay Abrams’ provacative review — Study: Even Minimal Improvements in Neighborhood Poverty Improve Mental Health (The Atlantic, Lindsay Abrams, 9/26/2012) below:
PROBLEM: How much might their distressed surroundings affect the lives of the most desperately poor? A social experiment in the mid-90s called Moving to Opportunity relocated thousands of low-income families in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York from public housing projects to lower-poverty areas in an attempt to answer this question. Disappointingly, they did not observe any increases in household income — an apparent blow to the housing vouchers system. Might other improvements have emerged despite the lack of improvement in their economic situation?
METHODOLOGY: Moving to Opportunity was a true experiment, in that it used a randomized lottery system to select the relocated families. This study revisits these subjects and looks at the long-term effects of moving on their physical and mental health and subjective well-being.
RESULTS: The voucher recipients who relocated live in neighborhoods with a 31.4 percent poverty rate. This is still unusually high, but it’s a marked improvement from the living situations of the control group: in their neighborhoods, 39.6 percent of the residents are living in poverty. Improvements in mental health were statistically significant, measured by a psychological distress index score for the preceding month, lifetime depression and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and amounts of normal sleep.
CONCLUSION: Moving to a better — or at least, less impoverished — neighborhood was correlated with improved mental health, including lower levels of depression, and “sizeable positive effects” on families’ subjective well-being, a measure that the study’s authors feel “represents a comprehensive assessment by the participants themselves of the extent to which their lives have been affected.”
IMPLICATIONS: “These findings suggest the importance of focusing on efforts to improve the well-being of poor families, rather than just the narrower goal of reducing income poverty, and the potential value of community-level interventions for achieving that end,” lead author Jens Ludwig said in a statement. The authors indicate that income segregation has superseded racial segregation as a major contributing factor to the diminished health and well-being of residents.
In a comment accompanying the study, Robert Sampson writes that the findings are notable for indicating that the relocation of people who grew up and spent most of their lives in poor neighborhoods can have lasting, positive effects. However, he says, “it remains unclear whether people-based or place-based interventions will be more effective in confronting persistent spatial divisions by race and class.”
Tanya Tull, ScD – President/CEO, Partnering for Change