NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 15, 2006

It is assumed that if poor families move to better neighborhoods their children will perform better in school, but a new working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) finds no academic improvement among these families to support this hypothesis. 

The data used by the NBER researchers drew from an earlier U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program, in which three groups of low-income families were offered housing assistance in the form of either home vouchers in low-poverty neighborhoods or traditional housing vouchers with no restrictions.  In addition, a control group was given no vouchers, but was made eligible for public housing.

The authors consider a number of explanations for the lack of improvement, says NBER:

  • Members of the experimental group may have moved from poor to middle-class neighborhoods, as their plan allowed, but for a variety of reasons may have had to move again to less affluent neighborhoods.
  • The group that was permitted to use their housing vouchers anywhere, may not have moved to areas appreciably better than those they had been living in; in any event, neither group moved to truly affluent neighborhoods.
  • Another explanation is that while the voucher recipients generally moved to better neighborhoods, three-fifths of them did not move to racially or ethnically integrated neighborhoods, where schools are often better.
  • Even after moving to a better neighborhood, some parents continued to send their children to school in their former neighborhoods because they felt the children would be more comfortable in familiar surroundings.

From a policy perspective, residential mobility programs, and even more dramatic experimental treatment, do not appear to have large impacts on the academic problems of children who live in public housing in high-poverty neighborhoods, say the researchers.

Source: Matt Nesvisky, "Improved Neighborhoods Don't Raise Academic Achievement," NBER, September 2006; based upon: Lisa Sanbonmatsu et al., "Neighborhoods and Academic Achievement: Results from the Moving to Opportunity Experiment," National Bureaus of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 1190, January 2006.

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