Reuters

A new study finds "unintended political consequences" of HUD's program to place poor families in higher-income neighborhoods.

In 1994, the Department of Housing and Urban Development launched a program called Moving to Opportunity. Its goal was to improve the employment, education, and health of low-income families living in poor neighborhoods, with poverty rates of 40 percent or more, by providing them with residential mobility. Over the next three years roughly 4,200 families from five major cities — Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York — were recruited to participate.

The chance for residential mobility was determined by lottery. Some families remained in their current public housing development. A second group received standard Section 8 housing vouchers. A third set received vouchers that could only be used toward an apartment in a low-poverty neighborhood — areas with a poverty rate below 10 percent. (Families that received vouchers weren't obligated to use them.)

Results from Moving to Opportunity have been mixed. A summary of the social results, published in the journal Econometrica in 2007 [PDF], found that 4 to 7 years after the lottery, families offered vouchers lived in safer neighborhoods than those who were not. The newfound mobility also provided mental health benefits to adults, and young women displayed not only mental health benefits but also educational and physical health benefits. On the other hand, the researchers reported no change in economic self-sufficiency, and young men even experienced some adverse effects. 

Now professor Claudine Gay of Harvard is questioning the program's political impact as well. In the March issue of Urban Affairs Review, Gay argues that the initiative has resulted in "unintended consequences for the political lives of the participants." Gay's analysis found significantly decreased voter turnout among program participants who relocated to low-poverty neighborhoods — likely the result of strained social connections:

The findings suggest that residential mobility, a popular tool in the fight against poverty, may strain poor Americans’ weak ties to the political system.

Gay examined voter registration and turnout data in the 2002 primary and the 2004 presidential election. She compared the political participation of all three Moving to Opportunity groups: those who "lost" the lottery and stayed put, those who moved with Section 8 vouchers, and those who moved into low-poverty areas (as well as those who received vouchers but chose not to move).

Her analysis turned up no negative effects with regard to voter registration, and turnout for the 2002 primary was uniformly low. But Gay did observe a much lower voter turnout in the 2004 presidential election among families that received a voucher. The effects were especially pronounced for the so-called lottery "winners": adults that moved into low-poverty neighborhoods had a lower voter turnout by 19 percent, compared with those who "lost" the lottery, Gay reports:

The net effect of the changes induced by the MTO [Moving to Opportunity] demonstration has been to depress political participation among voucher recipients in general, and recipients of the experimental vouchers in particular. … 

In sum, the group whose residential circumstances improved most dramatically became the group least likely to be active in electoral politics.

Because the program was randomized, Gay is confident that the mobility itself caused the noted decline in voter turnout. But exactly why that's the case isn't entirely clear. Gay's interpretation of the results rules out certain "administrative" difficulties of the move, such as registering to vote in a new area (since voter registration was consistent with all groups) and locating a polling place (since families that moved more than once, and thus had to find several different polling places, still voted as often as those that moved only once).

Instead, Gay reasons, the primary source of decreased voter turnout is likely the "social disruption" that occurs when a poor urban family relocates to a higher-income area. Community connections are strongly linked with political participation, and while it takes time for a new resident of any community to connect socially, that difficulty may be greater for residents whose socioeconomic profile doesn't match that of their new neighbors. Indeed, an interim survey [PDF] of Moving to Opportunity families found strained social ties among those that relocated to low-poverty areas — measured in time spent with friends and at church.

The goal of the Moving to Opportunity program was to combat poverty, and in many respects it's been a success. For many program participants, residential mobility has led to improved neighborhood safety, mental health, and education. At the same time, Gay concludes, the urban poor have a great deal at stake when it comes to public policy, so political activism "must be viewed as part of the solution to the problems of the poor":

The tension that is evident in the MTO demonstration — between the goal of improved social and economic well-being and the value of political engagement — is a problem to be examined and solved, and not simply a nuisance to lament but dismiss.

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