BEYOND THE NUMBERS
Parenting is stressful enough. Low-income mothers who live in areas of concentrated poverty, however, face the added stresses of financial hardship and helping their children navigate unhealthy, crime-ridden neighborhoods with low-quality schools. But housing vouchers can help these moms raise their kids in safer, higher-opportunity areas, greatly reducing the stress.
Not surprisingly, low-income mothers experience stress-related problems — including depression, diabetes, and heart disease — more than other adults, particularly if they live in very poor neighborhoods. Their stress, in turn, can have profound long-term effects on their young children’s cognitive development and physical health. The evidence is so strong that the American Academy of Pediatrics has urged policy changes to reduce toxic stress and its effects on young children.
Many characteristics of neighborhoods of concentrated poverty may contribute to parental stress. Two that researchers have identified are exposure to higher rates of sexual harassment and violent crime. Studies led by Patrick Sharkey (here, here, and here) have found, for example, that murders in a family’s immediate neighborhood were correlated with higher levels of stress hormones in mothers as well as with reduced cognitive skills among their children, even those who were likely too young to be directly aware of the crimes.
Given the chance, low-income mothers in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage often grab the opportunity to move to a safer neighborhood. Thus, mothers who applied to participate in the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) demonstration, which offered families in five cities the chance to use housing vouchers to move from public housing developments in extreme-poverty neighborhoods to lower-poverty areas, cited a desire to move to a safer neighborhood as the number one reason.
With these vouchers and help finding units to rent in low-poverty areas, most mothers moved to much safer neighborhoods, with dramatic effects. As we explained in October, the share of mothers suffering from depression, diabetes, and severe obesity fell substantially — equivalent, for example, to the best-practice drug treatments for depression — relative to women whose families didn’t receive an MTO voucher.
Their children, particularly girls, also experienced strong improvements in mental health. And a groundbreaking new study by Raj Chetty and colleagues shows that pre-teen children in MTO families who moved to better neighborhoods were later likelier to attend college and better quality schools, were less likely to become single parents, and earned higher incomes.
For low-income mothers, the burdens of parenting are heavier, which affects their health and well-being and their children’s long-term prospects. An expanded and improved housing voucher program would help more low-income mothers raise their families in safe, healthy neighborhoods.