School & District Management

Housing Experiment for Poor Found to Lack School Payoff

By Debra Viadero — January 20, 2006 6 min read
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A federal program that provides housing vouchers to help poor families move out of high-poverty neighborhoods appears to be having little impact so far on children’s academic achievement, a new report finds.

Four to seven years after leaving their old neighborhoods, the study found, children who took part in the program were doing no better in school than their peers who stayed behind in public-housing projects.

“Neighborhoods and Academic Achievement: Results from the Moving to Opportunity Experiment” is posted by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The study, which was posted this month on the Web site of the National Bureau of Economic Research, follows up on 2,300 families who took part in the federal Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing program in the 1990s.

Championed by politicians on both the right and the left, the program is an ambitious, 10-year experiment by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban and Development to determine what would happen if poor families were given the means to raise their children in better neighborhoods.

It has provided housing vouchers to disadvantaged families from five cities—Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York—in the hope that they would use them to migrate to safer, more prosperous neighborhoods with better schools and job prospects.

Yet while the program is reducing some of the psychological and physical stresses that families experience, the researchers found, it has so far failed to produce educational gains for their children, regardless of how young those children were when their families left public housing.

Still, said Jeffrey R. Kling, one of the lead researchers, the disappointing achievement findings may not necessarily mean policymakers should give up on the program.

“It may not be succeeding as an anti-poverty strategy, but it may be succeeding in other ways,” said Mr. Kling, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

Findings Reversed

The latest results contrast sharply with the promising findings that led federal housing officials—such as HUD Secretaries Jack Kemp, a Republican, and Henry Cisneros, a Democrat—to support the creation of the demonstration program more than a decade ago.

Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing

Designed to track participants for 10 years, the program randomly assigned families to three groups:

Group 1: Received rent vouchers to move to new neighborhoods with lower poverty rates.

Group 2: Received federal Section 8 program vouchers, which they could use to rent housing anywhere.

Control Group: Remained in public housing.

PROGRAM: Between 1994 and 1998, publichousing authorities in five cities—Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York— recruited 4,200 families from impoverished urban neighborhoods to take part in a federal demonstration program known as Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing.

PURPOSE: To test the long-term effects of access to low-poverty neighborhoods on the housing, employment, and educational achievement of participating households. The goal is to produce more effective anti-poverty strategies for urban families in public housing.

PRELIMINARY IMPACT: After five years, children whose families used vouchers to move to lower-poverty neighborhoods were faring no better than other children in the study on reading and math tests, or in such other areas as suspensions, expulsions, and school engagement.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

Those earlier studies focused on a Chicago-area effort in the 1970s that was known as the Gautreaux program. Like the federal Moving to Opportunity program, the Gautreaux initiative gave housing-project families vouchers to move to better-off communities.

Ten years later, researchers found, the children whose families had used the vouchers to move to more-affluent suburbs were more likely to have finished high school and attended college than their counterparts back in the city.

James E. Rosenbaum, the researcher from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who studied the Gautreaux program, said the results may differ because the two programs operated differently.

“Gautreaux went out of its way to avoid concentrating families in any particular neighborhood or in [U.S.] Census tracts adjoining Census tracts with higher poverty levels,” he said. What’s more, he said, the Gautreaux families went to suburban communities much farther from their downtown Chicago neighborhoods.

“What this suggests is that housing mobility by itself may not be sufficient to improve education, but housing combined with school changes and peer-group changes can have those effects,” Mr. Rosenbaum said.

Other experts also noted, however, that the Moving to Opportunity program was designed from the start to be a true experiment. The Gautreaux program, in comparison, was an outgrowth of a 1976 court order to desegregate public-housing projects in Chicago.

The families who took part in the Moving to Opportunity program, which began in 1994, were chosen by lottery to be in one of three groups. The first group, known as the experimental group, received vouchers for use only in moving to neighborhoods with less poverty. The second group received regular vouchers from the federal Section 8 housing program, which could be used to subsidize rent almost anywhere. The third, or control, group remained in public housing.

Gains Evaporate

Two-and-a-half years into the program, the results looked somewhat promising. In New York City, for instance, adolescent boys in the program were scoring 6 to 19 points higher on reading and mathematics tests than their peers in public-housing projects. Children of all ages who had left Baltimore’s housing projects also were showing gains in learning.

By the five-year mark, though, only the Baltimore participants were still holding on to their academic edge. In every other city, program participants were doing no better—or actually doing worse—than counterparts in the control group on tests of educational achievement.

The hoped-for learning gains may have failed to materialize, said Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, another co-author of the new study, because the affected children did not end up in schools that were markedly better than the schools they left behind. Only 14 percent of the 5,000 students tracked went to schools with test scores above the median for the state.

“At least in these five cities,” said Ms. Brooks-Gunn, a professor of child development at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, “when you moved to new neighborhoods that are lower-poverty, you weren’t moving to affluent suburbs. You were moving to communities where schools’ percentile scores were a bit higher, but not much higher.”

“You don’t see achievement differences between poor and near-poor kids,” she added. “The differences are between kids in affluent communities versus pretty much everything else, and that’s not our kids.”

Downsides to Mobility

To some extent, Mr. Kling of the Brookings Institution said, some families may also have “undone” the advantages they gained by moving too often and by relocating, in a few cases, to communities as poor as the ones they left. Such moves occurred at the same time that some of the families in the control group were moving to better neighborhoods.

“Basically, this is a group where there’s a lot of moving, regardless of whether they’re in the control or voucher group,” Mr. Kling said. The problem is that studies show that moving can detrimentally affect student achievement.

“I certainly would like to see policymakers think much more about the issue of turbulence and repeated moves, and whether the Section 8 program could do something for that,” Ms. Brooks-Gunn added.

The Housing and Urban Development Department put out a request for proposals last week for another follow-up study of the program families.

This one, scheduled to take place in 2007 and 2008, would follow up with families 10 years after they joined the experiment, the point at which researchers will be able to tell whether the program is having any impact on students’ high school graduation and college-going rates.

“There’s some theoretical reasons to think that maybe the effects would be larger then,” said Mr. Kling. “On the other hand, over time, families may move to new areas more like the control group.”

Mr. Kling’s and Ms. Brooks-Gunn’s co-authors on the five-year follow-up study are Lisa Sanbonmatsu, a research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a a nonprofit research organization in Cambridge, Mass., and Greg J. Duncan, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern. The peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources is also scheduled to publish the study this summer.

A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2006 edition of Education Week as Housing Experiment for Poor Found to Lack School Payoff

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