Young boys play basketball in a blighted neighborhood in Baltimore. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

New research finds an increase in delinquency for young boys (though not girls) if the surrounding areas remain disadvantaged.

In 1994, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development embarked on an experiment to test the effect of housing vouchers. The Moving to Opportunity study randomly assigned some 47 percent of the 4,600 participating families vouchers that allowed them to shift from high-poverty neighborhoods (with more than 40 percent residents living below the poverty line) to low-poverty ones (with less than 10 percent living below it).

Some findings from the MTO program, released in 2011, revealed that moving to richer neighborhoods increased risky behavior (such as smoking, drinking, using drugs) and delinquency (violent and property crimes) among young boys in these families—contrary to what other research had suggested. (Though these behaviors decreased among girls.) In a new research paper published in the journal Criminology, Penn State sociologist Corina Graif revisited MTO data with a broader geographical lens and found that it wasn’t just the neighborhoods where these boys lived but also the surrounding ones that influenced their behavior.

"I thought if the less-than-10 percent poverty neighborhoods had some highly disadvantaged neighborhoods surrounding them, maybe that's what explained the risky behavior,” Graif tells CityLab. “That's how we use space—we go to school or go grocery shopping in very different neighborhoods—and that’s not typically captured in the way we measure neighborhoods.”

In her analysis, Graif looked not just at the census tracts where the  families moved but four additional ones nearby. That spatial analysis left her with three main types of areas: places where the immediate and surrounding neighborhoods were all extremely poor, places where the immediate neighborhood was not poor but the surrounding ones were poor (or vice versa), and places where none of the study areas were poor.

Graif found that young boys who moved into areas that had a combination of high-poverty and low-poverty census tracts showed an increase in risky behavior and delinquency. (Girls still showed a decrease.) But if the kids moved into relatively richer neighborhoods that were surrounded by similar ones, the increased risky behavior of boys disappeared, while risky behavior by girls decreased, Graif found.

Why boys in particular exhibited higher delinquency in these socioeconomically mixed neighborhoods is hard to pin down, Graif says. They may have had more freedom to be out on the streets associating with delinquent friends in the nearby disadvantaged areas. Experiences with discrimination and seeing their relative disadvantage compared to their neighbors may have motivated them to act out, Graif suggests. Girls, on the other hand, may not have had the same exposure to risk.

It’s worth noting that the MTO program had its shortcomings. For one, kids in families that moved didn’t end up attending schools that were much better in performance and poverty rate than their old ones, an Urban Institute analysis from 2008 found. That could have played a role in the behavioral outcome noted above.

A more recent analysis of MTO data by Harvard economist Raj Chetty, however, revealed that moving kids to better neighborhoods ultimately did improve their long-term earnings, as long as they were under the age of 13 when they moved. The older they were when they moved, the less they gained from their new environments, with Chetty suggesting they may have suffered from the “disruption effects of moving to a very different environment.” Other research since the MTO study has shown that housing vouchers do not increase crime and are incredibly effective at fighting poverty.

Graif’s current study also suggests benefits to housing-voucher programs, though it emphasizes that their success relies heavily on where families end up. "What I take from this is not that we shouldn't move people—or boys—out of extreme disadvantage,” she says, “but when we do that, we should pay attention to make sure that the wider geographic environment is actually improved.”

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