Study reports good, bad news

Urban Chronicle

Program: Statistics indicate that moving inner-city kids to a better neighborhood reduces some crimes, but not others.

March 22, 2001|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Give kids in public housing the chance to move out of their impoverished Baltimore neighborhoods and they're far less likely to rob or assault someone. But they'll be more inclined to steal a bike.

That, in essence, is the conclusion of Jens Ludwig of Georgetown University, who studied juvenile crime records of hundreds of city teen-agers as part of an evaluation of the aborted Moving to Opportunity program of the mid-1990s.

His study arrives as Baltimore is struggling to comply with a court order to provide several hundred public housing families with opportunities to move to mostly white, middle-class areas.

Ludwig - who presented the results of his research last week at a seminar sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University's Institute for Policy Studies - found that juveniles involved in the Moving to Opportunity program were arrested half as often for violent crimes as those in a control group who remained in high-poverty areas.

But, in a finding that might do little to allay the fears of residents of middle-class neighborhoods upset by efforts to relocate public housing families, he reported that the same youths had nearly three-quarters more arrests for property crimes than the control group.

He said the effects on the middle-class neighborhoods to which low-income families move are a key issue.

"We don't have the answer to that," said Ludwig.

Moving to Opportunity was set up by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1994 in Baltimore and four other cities as a demonstration project to provide rental assistance and counseling to families and to evaluate efforts to move poor people out of the inner city. Money to expand the program the following year was killed by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, after the plan caused a furor in eastern Baltimore County.

Meanwhile, there has been bureaucratic, community and political opposition to a 5-year-old court decree requiring the city to provide public housing residents with nearly 2,200 rental certificates and new or renovated units throughout the region as part of a partial settlement of a federal civil rights suit.

Other studies of Moving to Opportunity have highlighted the benefits of moving to higher-income neighborhoods on the physical and mental health of parents and children in low-income families. The studies were collected in the January-February issue of Poverty Research News, the newsletter of the Northwestern University/University of Chicago Joint Center on Poverty Research.

One of those studies, by Ludwig and two colleagues, looked at the school performance of city kids involved in the Moving to Opportunity program. It found improved achievement among elementary school children, but little change among teen-agers.

Ludwig's crime study, carried out with two Northwestern University researchers, was based on state juvenile crime statistics. It includes arrest records of 1,406 study participants, from before Moving to Opportunity began through March 1999.

Of those participants, 279 teens were arrested 998 times on charges ranging from shoplifting to attempted murder, according to the study. The arrests were divided fairly evenly among violent crimes, mostly assaults and robberies; property crimes, including larcenies and auto thefts; and other crimes, including drug offenses and disorderly conduct.

The key finding is that about 12 of every 100 teens in the control group were arrested each year for a violent crime, compared with about six of 100 in the group moving from poverty. A reduction in robbery arrests accounts for half the difference.

But arrests for property crimes rose from eight of 100 in the control group to 14.4 per 100 for the group involved in Moving to Opportunity, Ludwig reported. Larcenies and thefts accounted for three-quarters of the increase. Arrests for drugs and disorderly conduct were little changed.

Ludwig said he was less confident about the property crime statistics, in part because of the greater probability of an arrest for a minor crime in an affluent area than in a poorer one.

Although the study does not make an issue of where the arrests occurred, it points out that 40 percent of the arrests of teens whose families moved outside of Baltimore through Moving to Opportunity occurred in the city. Researchers attribute that to the "effects of lingering social ties."

Even if the rising figures for property crime are accurate, Ludwig said, the increase is not necessarily bad when measured against the decrease in violent crimes. An economist by training, Ludwig argued that it is beneficial to society to in effect trade robberies, which he said carry a social cost of $8,000 per crime, for larcenies and thefts, which he said carry a social cost of $370 per crime.

"We'd be delighted to change a robbery for a bicycle theft," he said.

But he acknowledged that the trade-off might not be a strong selling point in suburban communities. "The politics of this are much more difficult, because you're changing the distribution of crime," he said.

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