Moving poor families out of low-income neighborhoods doesn’t help increase their wealth, education or job status, but it does offer a different kind of long-term boost: better health and more happiness.
In a recent study published in the journal Science, researchers analyzed data from Moving to Opportunity, a federal housing mobility experiment conducted in the 1990s. The project involved 4,600 low-income families living in poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles, New York, Baltimore, Chicago and Boston; about 2,000 families received housing vouchers that allowed them to move to mixed-income neighborhoods, while the others stayed behind. The goal was to determine how much a person’s living environment impacts his or her success.
Not much, according to the new study. Moving to neighborhoods with a lower concentration of poverty (families who received vouchers moved to communities where about one-third of residents lived in poverty, while the control group remained in neighborhoods where half of families lived in poverty) did not help people get better jobs or raise their income nor did it result in better education for children. Those findings, while disappointing, weren’t altogether surprising, researchers told the New York Times, noting that many of the children who moved still stayed in the same school district; further, because employers were looking for educated workers, switching neighborhoods didn’t improve job prospects for the participants, most of whom did not have a college education.
And yet the scientists found that families who moved reported significant boosts in their physical and psychological health. Compared with families who stayed behind, those who changed neighborhoods had lower rates of diabetes, obesity, anxiety and stress. They were also much happier and less depressed: in fact, their overall level of life satisfaction rose to that of someone whose annual income was $13,000 more a year — that’s saying something for a demographic earning about $20,000 annually.
“Helping poor families is about a lot more than just increasing their income,” lead study author Jens Ludwig, a University of Chicago economist, told the Wall Street Journal.
The researchers didn’t know exactly why moving to a new neighborhood made people so much happier, but they speculate that it was because people felt safer and less stressed out. But while families reaped mental-health benefits by moving to less violent, less poor communities, they were no better off in less segregated ones. That is, people said they were significantly happier in less poor neighborhoods, even if they were as racially segregated as the ones they left behind; but they didn’t experience the same gains by moving to equally poor, but more racially integrated neighborhoods.
That’s concerning, the researchers say, because while racial segregation in the U.S. has declined since 1970, the country has become increasingly economically segregated, with low-income people becoming more and more isolated.
“Focusing just on trends in income inequality over time in the U.S., while ignoring the growth of income segregation over time, understates the trends towards greater inequality in well-being in America,” Ludwig said in a statement.