November 01, 2019

Credit: Getty Images / Denis Tangney Jr

Breaking the cycle of poverty may seem like an impossible task, but the findings of a landmark social experiment tell a different story. 

Back in the mid-1990s, a program called Moving to Opportunity (MTO) gave some families, living in public housing projects in five large cities, vouchers and additional assistance to move to low-poverty neighborhoods. Lawrence Katz, a professor of economics at Harvard University and the principal investigator of the long-term evaluation of the initiative, explains why the ten-year results were surprising - and the twenty-year results may have been more surprising still. He also discusses encouraging new research from an experiment in the Seattle area that helps low-income families move to neighborhoods with better opportunities and outcomes for children.

Three Takeaways:

  • Katz says neighborhood environments are “incredibly important” for children’s lives and especially their futures. The very youngest people in the experiment, who spent the most time living in safer neighborhoods, saw the greatest benefits. These children were more likely to eventually attend college and much less likely to be teen parents. They also went on to earn over 30 percent more than those who hadn’t moved. Over time, the additional taxes that will be collected on their larger incomes are expected to more than make up for the costs of the MTO program.
  • Some of the early findings from the experiment were disappointing. The adults who moved to better neighborhoods didn’t get better jobs or earn greater incomes, and the children didn’t typically perform better on standardized tests. It wasn’t until the youngest participants in the program had grown up and a later evaluation of the study was published in 2015, that the positive and lasting effects were understood.   
  • Evidence from MTO and the new experiment in the Seattle area shows that expanding and targeting housing assistance (including help with moving costs) towards low-income families with young children would prove highly beneficial, according to Katz.

More Reading:

Moving to Opportunity, Lawrence Katz, Culture, cities, neighborhoods

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