Parents want the best for their children — the best schools to get a good education, food to keep them healthy and activities to expand their minds and enrich their lives.
But access to these things isn’t universal, and that lack of access helps lock poor families into cycles of poverty and increasing economic and racial segregation.
A team of economists and sociologists want to fix that, and their search for solutions is taking place in Seattle and King County.
The city and county have become a petri dish for researchers in an experiment called “Creating Moves to Opportunity” (CMTO).
Their question: Why do patterns of racial and economic segregation persist among families with housing vouchers who could otherwise move to high-opportunity neighborhoods, which has documented positive impacts on their children’s futures?
To explore this concept, researchers from Harvard University-based Opportunity Insights worked with the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) and King County Housing Authority (KCHA) to find families with at least one child under 15 who received a Section 8 housing voucher and run an experiment.
The control group would try to lease an apartment with the housing voucher — which pays the majority of a family’s rent after they kick in 30 percent of their income — with the existing resources and supports that housing authorities offer.
The experimental group, however, would get more extensive help, such as a system navigator to help them choose a high-opportunity neighborhood, a liaison to speak with landlords to encourage them to accept the tenants and financial assistance to cover the cost of moving.
The results of this study dropped in August, and they were dramatic — the percentage of families that moved into high opportunity areas increased by 40 points within the experimental group when compared to the control group.
Raj Chetty, a Harvard professor and researcher on the project, was stunned.
“This is the largest effect I’ve ever seen in a social science intervention,” Chetty told Vox.com via email.
The new study built upon results of an experiment run by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the 1990s in which families who accepted Section 8 vouchers were required to move to high-opportunity areas.
Early results showed some improvement in mental health for young girls, but no major gains for families who had been integrated into low-poverty neighborhoods, leading to the supposition that where a family moved using a voucher wasn’t important.
Those results were called into question in 2016 when Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren and Larry Katz revisited the data. Over the course of 15 years, the researchers found, there had been a significant improvement in outcomes for children of families who had moved out of low-opportunity areas. The effects were stronger the younger a child was when they relocated.
The researchers used granular, administrative data that followed 20 million people from childhood to their mid-30s to build maps by census tract showing places where successful adults had grown up. They labeled these opportunity neighborhoods and used that definition to identify such neighborhoods in Seattle and King County, said Shannon Felton Spence, a spokesperson at Opportunity Insights.
“In some cases, this is even neighborhoods that are separated by just a few miles or are touching each other and look similar to the naked eye,” Felton Spence said.
Historically, fewer than 20 percent of families with vouchers in Seattle and King County end up moving to these high-opportunity neighborhoods, and researchers wanted to know why. Was it lack of knowledge? Could rent in these places be prohibitive, preventing a voucher holder from leasing in the area? Did people not want to leave neighborhoods with which they were familiar?
Families in the treatment group worked with housing navigators supplied by local nonprofits for an average of 6.3 hours throughout the search for a new unit. The navigators helped families not just identify high-opportunity neighborhoods but offered emotional support too.
That’s important for people struggling with poverty who may not have the time or energy to complete the research necessary to choose a unit in a high-opportunity neighborhood.
“Families frequently used words like ‘blessing,’ ‘relief’ and ‘miracle’ to describe the CMTO program,” the study reads. “One mother even referred to a CMTO search assistance staff member as an ‘angel.’”
Staff also worked with landlords to encourage them to rent to voucher holders and provided an “insurance” budget above and beyond the security deposit to cover any potential damage.
The interventions were successful — the percent of households who moved into high opportunity neighborhoods shot up from 14.3 percent to 54.3 percent, according to the study.
The additional supports aren’t free. On average, the full suite of interventions cost $2,600 per family.
The cost of the experimental elements doesn’t fully account for the amount spent to move a family into a better neighborhood, however.
Both SHA and KCHA offer flexibility in how much they can spend on each voucher based on rents in the area. That means that a voucher used in a more expensive neighborhood will be able to cover a higher rent than one in a less expensive neighborhood.
If a high-opportunity neighborhood ends up being pricier than a lower-opportunity place, that’s an increased burden on the housing authority without additional dollars to fill the gap.
That means tradeoffs between housing more people and moving families into ‘better’ housing, said Stephen Norman, executive director of KCHA.
“I won’t tell you that as more families move into high-opportunity areas, it doesn’t cost more, but one thing Chetty’s study shows us is that it more than pays for itself over time,” Norman said. “We go back and forth because we are acutely aware that we need to bring families out of shelters and into stable housing, and that is the first priority.”
However, the program doesn’t necessarily pay for itself over time. The paper points out that improved outcomes for young people, over the course of decades, cover the cost of the interventions, not the increased rent payments.
That could mean a drain on limited dollars to relieve the homelessness crisis, said Jacob Vigdor, a University of Washington professor.
“There are so many different potential uses for money that we always want to have the conversation of seeing how limited dollars are used,” Vigdor said.
He also questioned whether information from Moving to Opportunity, research done 25 years ago in five major U.S. cities, could be extrapolated across different municipalities and generations.
Nathan Hendren, one of the researchers on the project, disagreed.
“This is now one of the more replicated findings in economics,” Hendren said.
If you start from this position of doubt, $2,600 per family plus the potentially higher cost of a voucher starts to look like a bad use of resources, Vigdor said.
“Are we investing in programs that make the most sense and have the most value?” Vigdor posited.
The experiment is now going into phase two, which aims to tease out which interventions are most effective, said Kerry Coughlin, spokesperson for SHA.
The housing authority can’t afford to spend an additional $2,600 on every family, Coughlin said, but if the researchers can determine what additional help made the difference in moving a family to a high- opportunity neighborhood, the cost goes down significantly.
“$2,600 isn’t scalable, but $300 is,” Coughlin said.
In the second phase of the experiment, the researchers will test the three interventions against one another.
That will help officials beef up specific programs that do the most good.
Moving households into high-opportunity areas may yield good outcomes for those families, but the work can’t end there, Norman said. It has to involve deconstructing the “secret sauce” that makes one neighborhood high-opportunity and another one low-opportunity. So far, that combination of factors remains an academic mystery.
“At the end of the day, how do we bring opportunity to poor neighborhoods in the region?” Norman asked.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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