Study explores why some families return to poor neighborhoods

Hopkins researcher delves into Moving to Opportunity, 1990s program that moved Baltimore's poor to counties

March 17, 2013|By Scott Dance, The Baltimore Sun

When it was introduced in 1994, the federal housing experiment Moving to Opportunity was, to some, a means to rectify poverty. To others, it was a way for cities to dump their poorest residents on the suburbs.

Many deemed it a failure, and officials pulled the plug on it in 1999. The program transplanted families from impoverished neighborhoods to wealthy ones, with mixed results, and the moves weren't permanent for most.

But one Hopkins researcher is among those seeking to salvage the program's efforts. A study published last year and ongoing research are seeking to glean more nuanced lessons on why it worked for some families but not others. While some adapted to their new surroundings, most were drawn back to poor areas to accommodate growing families or to access public transportation, for example.

"Critics were suggesting this was about racial preferences and preferences to be around family," said Stefanie DeLuca, an associate professor of sociology at Hopkins and co-author of the research. "The reality is more complicated than that."

Social scientists said understanding what drives the families' behavior can help improve current and future programs aiming to address education, health and income gaps in poor neighborhoods. A legal settlement Baltimore public housing residents won last year is re-launching similar programs targeting an increase in neighborhood racial and economic diversity.

Moving to Opportunities used a randomized experiment to test whether transplanting the families from low-income neighborhoods to mixed- or higher-income areas would lead to improvement in those indicators. Families that applied for the program were given a voucher to move to a higher-income neighborhood, given a standard Section 8 subsidized housing voucher they could use to move anywhere they chose, or denied a voucher altogether.

The idea was that if families could escape some of the ills of their neighborhoods — violence, drugs, prostitution – they could improve their well-being. The Moving to Opportunity experiment found families moved to low-poverty neighborhoods were less likely to experience distress, and boys in the families were less likely to be depressed. But effects on educational attainment or future income were not found.

Baltimore was one of five cities to take part in the experiment, with local participants coming from housing projects including the since-demolished Murphy Homes high rises in West Baltimore and others like Douglass and Perkins homes in East Baltimore and Poe and Poppleton homes in West Baltimore.

The program benefited recipients like Shirley Hudnall, who told The Baltimore Sun in 1998 it allowed her to move her then-15-year-old son from gunfire and drug dealing in West Baltimore to Pikesville.

But the program became a lightning rod for criticism. Opponents argued that Baltimore's poor would stir problems in county neighborhoods and bring crime. For some, the debate carried racial overtones.

"I want to change their opinion about the program and let them know that this is about making a better life for your child," Hudnall said of the opponents. Reached at her current home in the West Hills area of southwest Baltimore, Hudnall declined to be interviewed about the program earlier this month.

DeLuca's research followed up with 124 of the several hundred families that had been part of the program, including both types of voucher recipients and the control group that was given no voucher.

"You might assume that getting a chance to leave a ghetto neighborhood and move somewhere with poverty rates four times lower would have a profound effect. Others might say, just moving someone doesn't change everything," DeLuca said. "I thought it was important to understand what happened."

What she and collaborator Peter Rosenblatt of Loyola University Chicago found was that nearly three-fourths of the families given vouchers to live in low-poverty neighborhoods were back in the same poorer neighborhoods as the other program participants by 2002. In interviews with the heads of the families, all of them black women, the researchers found that families were often forced to make trade-offs that brought them back to poor neighborhoods.

Virtually all of the mothers said they appreciated the relative safety and quiet of the wealthier communities, but for some, the need for space for large or growing families carried more weight.

"I want to move really bad — it's not so much that the neighborhood is bad, because I can deal with it, you know what I'm saying, but I need more space," a mother identified as Sharon, who gave up her housing voucher to return to the projects, told the researchers. (No last names were used in the study.)

"I would love to stay in this community right here, but it's hard to get a three-bedroom out here in this area," a mother identified as Tina said before moving back to a poor neighborhood to make room for a new grandchild.

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