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Cityscape 167 168 Moving to Opportunity Making MTO Health Results More Relevant to Current Housing Policy: Next Steps Thomas D. Cook Northwestern University Coady Wing University of Illinois, Chicago Abstract This article examines the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) for Fair Housing demonstration and concludes that it has limited relevance for understanding the effects of the federal Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8 Program) for four reasons. First, MTO focused on a group of people who lived in public housing at the outset of the study, and this subpopulation represents a small fraction of the recipients of the Section 8 Program.
Second, MTO improves neighborhood quality more, on average, than the Section 8 Program does. Third, MTO fails to activate a mechanism that often improves health and is central to the Section 8 Program. Fourth, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development could probably not bring MTO’s major treatment condition to scale because of the relative shortage of affordable rental units in affluent neighborhoods. Because MTO had its clearest effects in the health domain, this article briefly outlines a study of the health effects of the Section 8 Program.
Introduction The Moving to Opportunity (MTO) for Fair Housing demonstration was designed about 20 years ago. It involved randomly assigning a sample of families living in very poor public housing neighborhoods to one of three groups: (1) a control group that initially remained in public housing, (2) a Section 8 group that initially received traditional housing vouchers to help pay rent on any private-market dwelling unit that met U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) qualifications, and (3) an experimental group that initially received vouchers that the families could use only if they moved to a qualified unit in a neighborhood with a poverty rate of less than 10 percent. Comparing outcomes across the three different groups 10 to 15 years after random assignment Cityscape 169 Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research • Volume 14, Number 2 • 2012 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development • Office of Policy Development and Research Cook and Wing informs us about the long-term effects of public housing residents leaving a high-poverty neighborhood in a research project that did not involve the usual selection process for housing vouchers, which is heavily oversubscribed nationally. In MTO, new vouchers were set aside for participants;
they were not obtained via a local lottery from existing voucher stocks.
MTO was designed in response to social science theories suggesting that people living in concentrated poverty are cut off from legitimate work opportunities and middle-class behavioral norms and that this social isolation is responsible for generating a host of negative social outcomes (Wilson, 1987). Wilson’s theory is about the consequences of living among many poor families in an underresourced setting; by contrast, MTO is about the effects of moving from such a setting into a more affluent one. MTO is relevant to public policy, however, because, over the past 20 years, housing vouchers have increasingly replaced public housing as the main source of government housing support for low-income families, and such vouchers are supposed to promote mobility into better housing units in better neighborhoods. This national goal makes it important to learn whether voucher-induced moves to neighborhoods with fewer poor families can, within a single generation, overcome the individual and familial damage caused by the high-poverty neighborhoods in which public housing families formerly lived.