Are Slums the Problem?
February 23, 2001
Since the 1980s, housing vouchers have given residents of public housing projects rent subsidies so they can afford homes in better neighborhoods. The number of rent vouchers is limited. They usually go to families headed by single mothers with low incomes. Most move to working-class communities where the poverty rate is 20 percent to 30 percent, compared with 40 percent or more in the projects.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development ordered a study to determine what effects this program had on the families involved.
- People who wanted to leave the projects volunteered to participate in a lottery.
- While few voucher families move outside their city, the lottery winners got considerable help moving to neighborhoods with poverty rates below 10 percent, usually in the suburbs.
- The lottery losers remained in the projects as a control group.
The study, which began in 1994, involved housing projects in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Boston. Through interviews, the five researchers who studied Boston found residents' greatest fear was random crime. So they designed their research to see what happened when the fear of crime lifted in the new neighborhoods.
- After six years, they found measurable improvement in the behavior of boys and in the mental health of mothers, who suffer less from depression.
- There were fewer asthma attacks and a big decline in injuries, partly from fewer fights, but also because playgrounds were no longer uniformly paved in concrete.
- School and job performance did not improve markedly -- although earnings and dropout rates may eventually improve.
While current public policy tries to improve life in the slums by spending millions on police, schools and jobs, the new research suggests the slums themselves are the problem.
Source: Louis Uchitell, "By Listening, 3 Economists Show Slums Hurt the Poor," Economic View, New York Times, February 18, 2001.
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