«Moving to opportunity voluMe 14, nuMber 2 • 2012 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development | Office of Policy Development and Research ...»
If an average of 40 municipalities in each metropolitan area served as “receiving communities,” the result would be—using ten as the hypothetical annual move-in ceiling—that 50,000 families each year, or 500,000 in a decade, would move “in Gautreaux fashion.” Notably, the 500,000 moves would equal almost half the black families living in metropolitan ghetto tracts [emphasis in original]. (Polikoff, 2004: 1) Note that Polikoff specifies that the receiving neighborhood would have to be “not minority impacted” and low poverty, a combined threshold that most experimental group moves would not have met, and that even with the lower standard in the demonstration just 47 percent of families in the experimental group moved to neighborhoods meeting the target criteria for their treatment.
If one assumes that reducing the number of eligible destination neighborhoods would reduce the lease-up rate to just 40 percent, the Polikoff proposal would involve offering 125,000 families per year a location-constrained voucher and appropriate housing counseling services, with 50,000 of those families actually making use of the vouchers. This number would be 307 times the average annual number of experimental group placements.
If we can project forward from the MTO results, however, the dynamics of neighborhood change would imply that perhaps only 25,000 of the 50,000 families would live in tracts that actually met the desired criteria. Further, perhaps 5,000 of the 25,000 would have moved from “metropolitan ghetto tracts” in which poverty had subsided to less than the target level, so that just 20,000 of the 125,000 families receiving the offer would feel the full, desired effect of the program.
The program as described here would likely frustrate or infuriate many of the people involved in it. The quantitative and qualitative evidence from MTO shows that concentrations of poverty are harmful in certain measurable ways and consistently damaging in certain subjective ways. The concentrations do not stay in one place, however, posing a huge and unsolved issue in policy design.
Conclusions We return here to the questions we posed at the beginning of the article.
Was a full-blown randomized social experiment necessary, or could “natural experimental” or “quasi-experimental” studies have produced equally valid results?
Neither “natural experiments,” at least those that have been analyzed so far, nor observational data are capable of answering fundamental scientific questions about the effect of neighborhood on individuals and families. Families assign themselves to neighborhoods, and they do not do so randomly. Even if a PHA randomly offers subsidized placement units in higher and lower income neighborhoods, the families receiving the offers will not randomly accept or reject them, and, to date, researchers have not captured the identities, baseline characteristics, or subsequent experiences of the families who refuse the placements. Differences in their neighborhood choices are correlated with a variety of observable individual characteristics and with a variety of not-usually observed characteristics as well. On the basis of both MTO and previous research, we have every reason to believe that these choices are also correlated with characteristics that have never been measured, which may result in biases that we cannot ordinarily observe, predict, or control for.
What was unique about MTO?
The rigor of the research design, the size of the sample (more than 15,000 individuals), the variety of sites, the length of followup, the broad array of outcome measures collected, the high effective survey response rate, and the difficulty and importance of the research questions both to national policy and to social science made MTO unique.
Where do we stand today regarding the concentration of poverty? Are the issues the same or are they different?
Poverty has increased in the past 20 years, and so has the population living in concentrated poverty. It appears, however, that the demolition of the notorious projects has meant that the locations of concentration are driven less by the locations of project-based assistance than they used to be.
It turns out that an implicit and unexamined assumption of the demonstration was that low- and high-poverty tracts would largely retain their low- and high-poverty status over time. Contrary to that unstated expectation, it appears that concentrated poverty often moves from one tract to another, while tracts that initially meet the criteria of neighborhoods of opportunity lose those criteria with surprising speed.
These apparent trends pose a perplexing problem in policy design. The mobility of low-income families who were not part of the demonstration weakened the treatment effect on the families in the treatment groups relative to the control group. There can be little question that the same mobility would have similar consequences for any replication of the experiment or any policy attempting to bring the experiment to scale.
MTO has provided invaluable insight into the ways in which neighborhoods do and do not affect individual outcomes. In the ongoing debate between place-based versus person-based mobility initiatives, however, MTO has yielded no final conclusion. The readers of this symposium are likely to come to widely disparate conclusions about what the logical next steps should be, in either policy or research. HUD welcomes those suggestions.17 This sentence is the only one in this article that is a statement of HUD policy.
We have noted some of our own doubts about the value of simple large-scale replication. Neither HUD nor most other government agencies can commit to research demonstrations of this scale and scope on a regular basis. In some ways, MTO is the kind of project that occurs not more than once in a generation. The authors and, we believe, nearly everyone else who has had a hand in MTO feel honored to have had some role in it.
Acknowledgments The authors thank Ron Wilson, David Greenberg, Jens Ludwig, Raphael Bostic, Bruce Katz, John Weicher, Judith Feins, and Alexander Polikoff for their assistance and comments in preparing this article. None of the foregoing is responsible for any error herein. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors; they do not represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or of any presidential appointee, past or present, who has served in the Department.
Authors Mark D. Shroder is Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary for Research, Evaluation, and Monitoring in the Office of Policy Development and Research at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Larry L. Orr, retired chief economist of Abt Associates Inc., is a lecturer at the Institute for Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
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Additional Reading Briggs, Xavier de Souza, Susan J. Popkin, and John Goering. 2010. Moving to Opportunity: The Story of an American Experiment To Fight Ghetto Poverty. New York: Oxford University Press.
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1999. Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing Demonstration Program: Current Status and Initial Findings. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research.
Ludwig, Jens, Jeffrey R. Kling, and Sendhil Mullainathan. 2011. “Mechanism Experiments and Policy Evaluations,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 25 (3): 17–38.
Matthew Sciandra National Bureau of Economic Research The contents of this chapter are the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Congressional Budget Office, the U.S.
government, or any state or local agency that provided data.