NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 3, 2005

With hundreds of thousands of New Orleans evacuees spread out across the United States, social scientists are wondering if the relocation will help them out of poverty.

The poor often live in public housing or use Section 8 vouchers, which anchors them to a specific place and makes it difficult to relocate out of poverty-stricken areas. Moreover, families who spend years on waiting lists for public housing have an incentive to stay put once they get it, says Leslie Kaufman of the New York Times.

In an experiment known as Gautreaux, the Chicago Housing Authority moved 25,000 poor African-Americans out of public housing complexes and into subsidized housing in the suburbs where no more than 30 percent of the population was African-American. As a result:

  • Heads of households of the moved families were more likely to be employed than their inner-city counterparts.
  • Children in these families were more likely to graduate from high school and go to college than their inner-city peers.

In the 1990s, the Department of Housing and Urban Development implemented a program that gave vouchers to residents in poor urban neighborhoods, with the requirement that they move to areas with lower poverty levels, but with slightly different results:

  • HUD's program did not show statistically significant changes in employment or educational attainment rates.
  • Moreover, the voucher recipients tended to live near each other.

Indeed, James E. Rosenbaum of Northwestern University concludes that with limits on housing vouchers, the poor will simply band together elsewhere and perpetuate the cycle of crime, single motherhood and low educational attainment.

This leaves some observers concerned about the Federal Emergency Management Agency's purchase of thousands of trailers to be used for temporary housing for New Orleans evacuees. Many politicians fear the encampments will become "FEMA ghettos" that isolate the poor from communities and jobs.

Source: Leslie Kaufman, "An Uprooted Underclass, Under the Microscope," New York Times, September 25, 2005.

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