A moving lift for poor families

Housing vouchers gave impoverished single mothers emotional but not economic benefits

Single mothers mired in extreme poverty feel considerably better about their lives and are mentally healthier after moving out of public housing with the help of federal housing vouchers, a new study finds. But here’s the bad news: That type of helping hand isn’t strong enough to break the cycle of poverty.

This two-sided trend, uncovered by economist Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago and his colleagues, presents policy makers with a quandary. Designed as poverty-fighting tools, housing vouchers don’t get poor adults off welfare rolls and into decent-paying jobs, Ludwig’s team reports in the Sept. 21 Science. Yet the same black and Hispanic single mothers who received vouchers did cite big emotional benefits after moving from public housing to apartments in somewhat better parts of town.

“Moving to a less-distressed neighborhood matters a great deal for the well-being of low-income women who participated in this study, but it doesn’t seem to be enough to boost their earnings,” Ludwig says. Training in marketable skills might complement voucher programs, he suggests.

Nearly 9 million people in the United States live in extremely poor neighborhoods in which at least 40 percent of residents have incomes below federal poverty cutoffs. Researchers have long struggled to determine whether preexisting characteristics of people living in deprived neighborhoods, rather than the harshness of their surroundings, explain poverty-related crime, welfare dependence, physical ills and teenage pregnancies.

Ludwig’s team examined data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Moving to Opportunity project. From 1994 to 1998, more than 4,600 poor, mostly female-headed families in five cities — Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York — randomly received either housing vouchers or no financial help. Voucher recipients were able to move from public housing projects to less-disadvantaged but still poor neighborhoods where almost one third of residents fell below the poverty line.

MTO families that didn’t get vouchers occasionally moved but stayed in extremely poor neighborhoods.

Over 10 to 15 years, women who moved their families to better neighborhoods reported better mental health and greater happiness with their lives than those still in public housing. But the voucher group showed no advantage in being able to secure jobs or get off welfare.

“This study reveals how hard it is to ameliorate poverty among those who have spent most of their lives in severely disadvantaged neighborhoods,” says Harvard University sociologist Robert Sampson. Even with housing assistance, MTO participants could move to only a limited number of affordable, less-deprived neighborhoods. Sampson calls this concentration of poverty in certain parts of major cities “the neighborhood glass ceiling.”

Escaping neighborhood violence, drugs and gangs enabled better mental health and increased happiness for voucher recipients, Sampson speculates.

Children may particularly profit, emotionally and academically, by moving from high-poverty to less-disadvantaged neighborhoods, but this possibility remains little studied. In a discouraging report, Sampson and his colleagues found that 6- to 12-year-old kids from Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods displayed notable declines in vocabulary and reading skills over a seven-year span, even after their families moved to better parts of the city ( SN: 12/22/07, p. 388 ).

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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