Moving to Opportunity

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Moving to Opportunity




The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Developments (HUD) Moving to Opportunity (MTO) for Fair Housing Demonstration was intended to rigorously explore the ways that neighborhood environments affect the life chances of very poor families, by testing the effects of helping public housing families who lived in areas of concentrated poverty (neighborhoods where more than 40% of the households are poor) to move to better neighborhoods. Researchers and policy makers hoped that these moves would enable these residents to find jobs and their children to succeed in school.

The MTO demonstration grew out of a body of research on how neighborhood environments affect life chances (c.f. Wilson 1987). There was increasing evidence that living in high-poverty neighborhoods was related to a range of problems such as poor school performance, teen pregnancy, delinquency, drug use, weak labor-force attachment, and poor health (Ellen and Turner 1997; Ellen, Mijanovich, and Dillman 2001; Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn 2000). Among the most destructive communities were central-city public-housing developments, where residents endured miserable living conditions and horrific rates of violent crime and drug trafficking (Popkin et al. 2000a).


MTO was modeled on Chicagos Gautreaux program, which was the result of a landmark desegregation lawsuit filed against the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) and HUD. In Hills v. Gautreaux (1976) the courts found that the CHA and HUD had discriminated against black tenants, concentrating them in large-scale developments located in poor, black neighborhoods. The court ordered relief in the form of 7,100 Section 8 voucherssubsidies that were to be provided to current and former CHA residents to use in neighborhoods that were less than 30 percent black (Polikoff 2006). Section 8 (Housing Choice) vouchers permit low-income households to rent private market units; recipients pay up to 30 percent of their income for rent and the local housing authority pays the rest. The Gautreaux program also provided mobility counseling to participants to help them find housing in predominantly white communities.

Research on the program seemed to indicate big gains for participants who succeeded in moving to predominantly white suburbs. Adults were more likely to be employed (Popkin, Rosenbaum, and Meaden 1993) and children more likely to stay in school, to be employed after graduation, and to go on to four-year colleges or universities (Kaufman and Rosenbaum 1992; Rubinowitz and Rosenbaum 2000). But Gautreaux participants self-selected into the program and were heavily screened, undergoing home visits and credit checks; most of the families (about 80%) that came through the program never moved; and the research relied on a retrospective design (Popkin et al. 2000b).


The MTO demonstration was designed as a true random experiment. There was a critical difference between Gautreaux and MTO: MTO used poverty rather than race to define opportunity neighborhoods. Between 1994 and 1998 more than 4,600 low-income families from high-poverty (more than 40% poor) public housing developments enrolled in MTO in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups: (1) an experimental treatment group that received counseling and received vouchers they could only use in a low-poverty (less than 10% poor) census tract; (2) a regular Section 8 comparison group that received vouchers with no special counseling and no neighborhood restrictions; and (3) an in-place control group that continued to live in public housing (Goering and Feins 2003).

MTO families were surveyed at baseline, before random assignment. HUD then funded several single-site studies one to three years after families moved to get preliminary data on how families were faring (Goering and Feins 2003). An interim evaluation was conducted in 2002, including analysis of administrative data on employment, welfare recipiency, and arrests; in-depth qualitative interviews of parents and youth; surveys of parents, children, and youth; blood pressure measurement for adults; and educational testing of youth.

Findings from the interim evaluation showed dramatic gains in quality of life for MTO participants, especially in terms of neighborhood safety and sense of security; these gains persisted, even though many families made subsequent moves to higher poverty communities (Orr et al. 2003). Adult women and adolescent girls experienced significant improvements in mental health; adult women also experienced declines in obesity relative to the control group. Boys did not experience these improvements in mental health; and boys in the experimental group had higher arrest rates for any crime, especially property crimes, and significant increases in smoking, although not in other types of risky behavior. Finally, there were no measured effects on employment or academic achievement for either adults or adolescents.

There are a number of possible explanations for these findings. First, unlike Gautreaux families, most MTO families did not move to white suburban neighborhoods, but to predominantly minority city neighborhoods that grew poorer between 1990 and 2000; few MTO families moved out of their original urban school districts. Second, because of welfare reform and the booming economy of the 1990s, employment rates increased dramatically for all three treatment groups; these trends may have masked any smaller treatment effects. Third, MTO families were significantly more disadvantaged than the Gautreaux families, and may not have been as able to take advantage of new opportunities. Fourth, MTO was a housing assistance program; it did not include any job training or other employment services; further, expectations that neighbors in low poverty would serve as role models and provide information about jobs may have been unrealistic. Finally, it simply may be that not enough time had elapsed to see significant effects on employment and education. The final evaluation, scheduled for 2007, will address the long-term effects of MTO.

MTO has shown that it is possible to use housing mobility as a tool for improving poor families life circumstances. The improvements, including a sense of security and mental health for adult women and girls, are substantial, and may well have long-term implications for families economic well-being. But the MTO findings also highlight the limitations of using poverty rather than race to define opportunity communities, as well as the need for more supports to help profoundly disadvantaged public housing families.

SEE ALSO Gautreaux Residential Mobility Program; Poverty; Social Experiment


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Popkin, Susan Judith, James E. Rosenbaum, and Patricia M. Meaden. 1993. Labor Market Experiences of Low-Income Black Women in Middle-Class Suburbs: Evidence from a Survey of Gautreaux Program Participants. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 12(3): 556573.

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Wilson, William Julius. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Susan J. Popkin

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Moving to Opportunity

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