Why neighborhood quality matters


In the summer of 2008, I found myself lost in Chicago. I was new to the sprawling city, living there for two months while working as an intern science reporter at the Chicago Tribune. To counter weekend boredom, I would explore the city by bike. I’d often find myself mildly disoriented, but this time I had really done it. I knew I was north of the Loop, but that was about it.

Finally, I happened across Halsted Street, a major north-south thoroughfare that ran a few blocks from where I was living. Relieved, I started south, coasting past nice brick apartment buildings and row houses, big box stores and tony shops. But after a few miles, the timbre of Halsted changed. Quickly. Well-kept storefronts gave way to crumbling industrial buildings and weedy sidewalks. Then came the most depressing hulk of a building you could imagine. It was a drab beige tower surrounded by acres of asphalt and dotted with boarded up windows fringed with smoke stains. I knew exactly where I was.

Cabrini-Green’s bad reputation was well-known, especially in the Midwest where I grew up. It was among the first projects built by the Chicago Housing Authority in the mid-20th century. By the 1970s, Cabrini-Green was notorious for destitution and violence. Gangs had taken over various buildings, and internecine warfare kept even the hard-nosed Chicago police at bay. Tales of horrific murders spread around the country. My aunt, who tutored elementary school students there, would recount stories she heard from residents. Cabrini-Green was at best a place to be avoided.

And here I was, blithely riding by. Though I didn’t know it at the time, Cabrini-Green’s most notorious days were past it. The tower was largely vacant, save for a few holdouts. When I moved back to Chicago a year later, the last of the high-rises were being torn down.

Housing projects are widely viewed as a failure. Their concentrated poverty seemed to descend into a negative feedback loop, where depravity fed on itself. Over the years, Chicago tried to assert control, to no avail. They muscled up the police presence; that was met with sniper fire. In 1981, then-mayor Jane Byrne moved into a ground floor apartment guarded round the clock by uniformed officers. She moved out three weeks later.

Oddly enough, Byrne’s publicity stunt was on the right track, if completely backwards. Housing projects’ needed a shock to break the cycle. But they didn’t need a mayor moving in. They needed to move people out.

That’s exactly what the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development did in the mid-1990s, when it took over the dysfunctional Chicago Housing Authority. As a part of the Moving to Opportunity program, households could enroll in a lottery which would give winners assistance in finding and vouchers to pay for housing in low poverty neighborhoods. Chicago wasn’t the only city in the trial—New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Baltimore were also involved. The idea was that after moving to low poverty neighborhoods, families would find more and better jobs and be healthier and happier. Nearly 5,000 families were included in the experiment.

It worked, to some extent. A study published today in the journal Science details how people involved in Moving to Opportunity have fared in the 15 years since the program started. Though those who moved to low poverty neighborhoods were still as poor as those who didn’t, there were some changes. Notably, they were happier and somewhat healthier.

The study, led by Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago, looked at a variety of factors, ranging from poverty rate to racial segregation to mental and physical health. Though poverty rates didn’t change significantly, and racial segregation nudged only slightly lower, people’s health improved. Physical health, as measured by obesity and diabetes, were slightly better in this study. (A prior study published by Ludwig and colleagues in the New England Journal of Medicine last year reported more significant improvements.) But mental health, as measured by self-reported subjective well-being, or how people felt about their lives, was significantly improved among people who lived in low poverty neighborhoods. So while people were still poor, they were happier. That says a lot about the importance of your surroundings.

Ludwig and his colleagues point out that if the objective of Moving to Opportunity was to reduce poverty, then at this point it would be considered a failure. But if the goal was to improve people’s lives in other ways, well, it’s not doing too bad.

The study only focused on adults, in part because measuring subjective well-being of youngsters is an inexact science. Because of that, they’re missing an important component. It’s difficult to break free of poverty, especially when you’ve inherited it. But children, through better education and improved health, have more potential than their parents (even if that’s only because they have more of life left to live). It’s possible that, because of a more positive home life, kids in families living in low poverty will have better opportunities than their parents, helping them break the cycle.


Ludwig, Jens, Greg J. Duncan, Lisa A. Gennetian, Lawrence F. Katz, Ronald C. Kessler, Jeffrey R. Kling Lisa Sanbonmatsu. 2012. “Neighborhood Effects on the Long-Term Well-Being of Low-Income Adults”. Science 337(21): 15051510. DOI: 10.1126/science.1224648

Photo by puroticorico.

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