Equity & Diversity

Anti-Poverty Program Found to Yield Few Academic Gains

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 15, 2013 5 min read
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Ten to 15 years after leaving neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, children of the Moving to Opportunity program are in most ways no better off than their peers who stayed put. But new findings from the ongoing study of their urban communities suggest more comprehensive school-neighborhood improvement initiatives stand a better chance of breaking the cycle of poverty.

The latest studies on the research project, which were presented at the annual conference of the American Economic Association here, find that removing children from concentrated poverty boosts their parents’ sense of well-being, but by itself doesn’t increase children’s reading or mathematics achievement or the likelihood that they will be on track to graduate from high school or be employed as adults. Even children who moved before age 6, considered a critical period for brain development, showed no academic benefits from moving to higher-income neighborhoods.

“The federal government spends billions every year trying to mix people up” through housing vouchers and other programs, said Janet M. Currie, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey and the director of its Center for Health and Well-Being. Yet, she added, “there’s this incredibly persistent sense that there is still little opportunity for people in low-income neighborhoods, leading to the cycles of poverty.” Ms. Currie, who was not involved in Moving to Opportunity, commented on the studies presented at the conference, all of which drew on data from the long-running project.

Lawrence F. Katz, an economics professor at Harvard University, and fellow Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer Jr. are just starting to use some of that data to separately explore how community and school improvements work together to support student achievement.

Mr. Katz is analyzing how school and neighborhood interventions affect children’s ability to, in Mr. Katz’s words, “achieve escape velocity, breaking the persistence of intergenerational poverty and moving people from poor families and poor neighborhoods to better long-run outcomes.”

For example, New York City’s Harlem Children’s Zone, which combines school improvement programs with neighborhood engagement, community health, and other supports, did improve students’ academic achievement.

“We’re getting findings [from Moving to Opportunity] that show improving school quality for poor kids definitely affects their long-run outcomes,” Mr. Katz said.

Adult Peace of Mind

The Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing program provided vouchers for more than 4,600 low-income families in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York to move to wealthier neighborhoods between 1994 and 1998.

The program did reduce the concentration of poverty for families, both in a seven-year follow-up study and in the latest report. After moving, the average family lived in a neighborhood with half the poverty rate of its previous neighborhood. Moreover, the families generally moved to neighborhoods with a third fewer violent crimes than their original ones.

In some of the research presented by the panel, a team led by Jens Ludwig, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, found that, for adults in the program, moving to a new neighborhood with a poverty rate at least 13 percentage points lower than that in their original community translated to better mental and physical health. The improvement to the families’ well-being was equal to getting a pay raise of $13,000—a huge boost for participants, who had an average income at the time of $20,000 a year.

Little Help for Children

Their children were also more likely to say they felt safe at home and in school and to witness less violence or fewer drug sales in their new neighborhood.

But, by and large, those improvements didn’t transfer to academic achievement for the children of families who moved.

Through the program data, Mr. Katz, Mr. Ludwig, and other researchers have been able to track adults and children who moved through the program and compare their outcomes with those for families who received no help or standard housing assistance in their original neighborhoods.

From 2008 to 2010, the researchers surveyed more than 5,100 young people ages 10 to 20 whose families had participated in the program, including 457 students ages 10 to 12 and 4,644 ages 13 to 20.

They found that girls whose families moved to wealthier neighborhoods had lower rates of obesity and better mental health than those who didn’t, but were doing no better academically than girls whose families had not moved.

For boys, the move appeared to hurt: They were less likely to be on track to graduate and more likely to smoke than boys whose families had not moved.

But, while the families moved to wealthier neighborhoods, the researchers found the students remained in schools that looked much like the neighborhoods they’d left: Enrollments were on average 90 percent minority, and 70 percent of students were receiving subsidized school meals.

Mr. Katz pointed out that neighborhoods and schools are closely tied. Communities that have a broader mix of income levels are better able to support school improvements than those with concentrated poverty, he said, and American communities are showing increasing signs of economic segregation even within the same racial groups.

“Increasingly, poor minority families are only living with other poor minority families,” he said. “These children appear to be increasingly isolated in who they grow up with and who they go to school with.”

Another study this past fall of four major federal housing programs echoes the Moving to Opportunity results. It found that most children who moved to a better neighborhood through a public-assistance program often didn’t end up in a higher-quality school.

Ms. Currie of Princeton also suggested that the lackluster results for children may point to hidden strengths in their original neighborhoods. Ironically, children in high-poverty neighborhoods may have had more targeted services, such as federal Title I education aid, home visits, or other programs.

“Our bottom line is, there’s growing evidence that neighborhood conditions really do matter to poor families—they matter for health and well-being—but we shouldn’t view them by themselves as an anti-poverty program,” said Mr. Katz.

A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2013 edition of Education Week as Anti-Poverty Program Found to Fall Short

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