Do neighborhoods matter to kids’ well-being and long-term success? Intuition says yes — indeed, families that can afford to often bet large sums that locating in good neighborhoods with strong schools will benefit their kids. A careful review of the research evidence supports this intuition.
Some observers question the value of good neighborhoods, citing findings from Moving to Opportunity (MTO), a 15-year, random-assignment study of nearly 5,000 low-income families that the federal government designed explicitly to see whether moving to low-poverty neighborhoods benefits low-income children and their families. It found that moving to lower-poverty neighborhoods yielded only mixed health results for children and no educational gains, relative to children in the control group.
But to conclude that neighborhoods don’t matter much to children is unwise. For one, it ignores the substantial research suggesting that growing up in neighborhoods of extreme poverty impairs children’s health and cognitive development — and that low-income children who grow up in low-poverty neighborhoods and attend high-quality schools can make substantial academic gains.
In addition, MTO had important limitations that may explain its disappointing educational findings. Specifically, few of the MTO families that moved to low-poverty neighborhoods stayed there for more than a few years, and most children continued to attend low-performing, racially segregated schools.
Only one-quarter of the MTO families in the experimental group (who received a housing voucher on the condition that they use it to move to a low-poverty neighborhood and remain there for at least one year) who moved at the beginning of the study were still in low-poverty neighborhoods four to seven years later. For most of the study, most experimental-group families lived not in low-poverty neighborhoods but in neighborhoods of moderate poverty, where at least 20 percent of residents were poor.
Moreover, children in the experimental group attended schools that ranked in the bottom 25 percent on state exams, on average — only marginally better than the schools of children in the control group.
In short, while strong in other respects, MTO was a weak test of the potential effects of low-poverty neighborhoods and high-quality schools on the educational achievement of low-income children. So it’s essential to consider the full body of evidence, as we did in our report.
Because neighborhoods matter to children — and nearly 4 million children live in federally assisted housing — housing policy matters, too, and policymakers should improve families’ ability to live in better neighborhoods. We’ve explained here how they can help families using housing vouchers, here how they can help those living in project-based rental housing, and here how they can help families in public housing.
The good news is they can make these changes in the near term — working with federal, state, and local agencies and philanthropic organizations — even in today’s fiscally constrained environment.