Jon E. Hilsenrath and Rafael Gerena-Morales, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 28, 2006
A decade ago, Lydia Grayson got as far away from her drug-addled, East Harlem housing project as she could. At the time, she was a 28-year-old mother of three, and, she says, a drug user. She took a federal housing voucher and packed her family on a Greyhound bus with one-way tickets to North Carolina.
Climbing out of poverty hasn’t been as easy as getting on the bus. She says her life is now drug-free and more stable, and her children are growing up in a better environment. Yet in many ways, her struggles traveled with her.
A $16 billion federal infrastructure has built up around housing vouchers designed to give poor families more choices about where to live. About two million families currently use “Section 8” vouchers that allow them to move with subsidized rent. Since 1993, the government has been demolishing urban housing projects and forcing families to resettle in other places, sometimes with vouchers.
After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, nearly 30,000 families, many extremely poor, turned to the federal government for vouchers after they were displaced, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Beginning in 1994, the federal government offered a lottery for housing vouchers to families in five major cities. Families were randomly assigned to different groups. One group received vouchers to be used specifically to subsidize rents in neighborhoods where poverty was low. About 860 families eventually moved.
Another group, of 1,440 families, wasn’t offered vouchers and, initially at least, stayed in high-poverty neighborhoods. Researchers have since tracked and compared the fortunes of the two groups.
The program, called Moving to Opportunity, was administered by HUD. A private firm called Abt Associates was contracted to track participants. Researchers at Harvard, Princeton, Northwestern and other institutions played a role in designing studies related to the program and analyzing the data.
When the program was launched, housing vouchers were seen as a promising antidote to urban poverty. Researchers had pinpointed ghettos as a culprit in the worsening fortunes of many poor, minority families. Free them from the poisonous cocktail of drugs and crime brewing in city ghettos, scholars reasoned, and the families would have a chance to leave poverty behind.
But results show that may only partially be true. “It would have been wonderful to have discovered the magic bullet,” says Jeffrey Liebman, a Harvard economist who has studied the program.
Findings, he says, were more complicated. Among them: boys whose families moved actually fared worse than boys who stayed in bad neighborhoods. Girls, however, fared significantly better. Adults felt better, physically and mentally, than those who stayed behind, but didn’t do better financially.
The Moving to Opportunity program, started in 1994, was a mix of liberal and conservative policy: hatched by Republican Jack Kemp and implemented by the Clinton administration. But later that year, in Baltimore — one of the five cities participating — suburbanites rebelled against the idea that poor families from troubled environments would be flocking to their neighborhoods. Plans to move additional families were canceled.
Lydia with Venice Cross
Over time, researchers followed the families who moved, comparing them with those who stayed. The fortunes of the families involved were surprising: Earnings of families who relocated to low-poverty areas averaged just $9,376 in 2001, a half-decade after they moved. That’s just 3% higher than the $9,108 earned by those in the control group, a statistically insignificant difference.
Other measures improved. In a 2002 survey of 3,521 adults in the program — most of them women — 18.5% of people who moved to low-poverty neighborhoods suffered bouts of major depression, significantly lower than the 26.3% who felt depressed in the control group. Mr. Liebman, the Harvard economist, says that’s roughly the same effect that’s seen when depressed people are put on a regimen of antidepressant drugs.
Among nearly 800 teenage girls, 83% of those who relocated to low-poverty neighborhoods had either graduated from high school or were still in school five years after the move, compared with 71% in the control group. Alcohol use was lower. Arrest rates were lower. And mental-health measures improved. Away from the violence of the ghetto, girls seemed to flourish.
Teenage boys didn’t. School participation deteriorated and property-crime rates, mental distress, and smoking all increased among those who moved with the vouchers, compared with teenage boys in families who didn’t move. For property crime, there were 58 arrests for every 100 boys who moved to low-poverty neighborhoods, compared with 22 arrests for every 100 boys in the control group.
Because boys hang out more in their neighborhoods, researchers expected they would respond well to safer, more-affluent environments. Instead, many seemed to feel isolated in the new places, or harassed by police, and they acted out.
Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, who diagnosed the social isolation of the inner-city poor in the 1980s, says some families didn’t thrive in mobility experiments because they didn’t move far enough from their old neighborhoods. Some stayed so close that they didn’t even switch school districts. “If they had been able to move children to better school districts,” he says, “you might have had better outcomes.”
Researchers agree that relocating people to combat poverty is a complex strategy at best. “What do you do with a program that helps some people a lot, and doesn’t help others or hurts them?” says Todd Richardson, deputy director of HUD’s Program Evaluation Division.
Overall, he says, it’s better to move people than leave them in giant housing projects with high concentrations of poverty, one reason HUD has been demolishing public housing. But to make moves successful, scholars say, more counseling and support of those uprooted might help. Some of the families in the test are still being tracked and HUD is about to undertake a study to look at the impacts 10 years after a move.
The experience of Ms. Grayson, the Harlem transplant, shows the kind of mixed results they seem likely to find.
Her move to North Carolina was an almost immediate struggle. The Moving to Opportunity program provided some counseling, but it tended to focus on those who didn’t move far away. Because Ms. Grayson moved so far, she was effectively on her own.
On advice from her cousin, she moved to a remote spot about 15 miles outside of Jacksonville. She couldn’t afford gas to heat her home. In the winter, she sat up late shivering and crying. She says she walked about two miles to work at a school cafeteria, where she earned $5.15 an hour. She also got back into drugs, she says. Before her first year in North Carolina was up, she left her place and moved with her children into a homeless shelter, closer to town.
For the next few years, Ms. Grayson moved around Jacksonville, trying to find a place to settle with her voucher. She says one neighborhood, near a mall, was populated by the kind of drug users who made her want to leave New York. A quiet area with one-story homes and small yards was too far from work since she didn’t have a car.
As they moved, Stanley [her son] struggled. When he was 14, his mother sent him to Florida where his father lived. He eventually was sent to a youth-detention facility on gun-possession charges, he and his mother say.
Stanley says if he had stayed in New York, other family members might have kept him out of trouble. In North Carolina, “I felt really lonely,” he says. “There was nobody I could talk to.”
At the same time, Ms. Grayson has changed her life for the better. She says she is drug-free, and her two younger children seem to have settled into life in North Carolina. Kevin, 16, became involved in sports and has a job at a KFC restaurant. His mother says he’s involved in his school’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program. Khadijah, 12, is being home-schooled by her mother.
While following Ms. Cross, Ms. Grayson got to know the preacher’s brother, Joseph, a retired New York City maintenance worker. She married him last year.
Earlier this year, they found a small apartment in a two-story building. A sign in the parking lot warns visitors against carrying handguns. By then, Ms. Grayson had landed a $9.74-an-hour job as a record keeper at a nearby hospital. “I never really held down a real job” before then, she says.
The family has been helped by her husband’s income doing construction work, Ms. Grayson says, but it hasn’t been enough. In August, she started collecting federal unemployment benefits. They will expire early in 2007.