Where children grow up can have a big impact on how well they do as adults. Good schools, safe streets, better environment — all can make a difference. The government has tried to use housing subsidies to encourage low-income families to move to better neighborhoods, but past efforts have fallen short. A new experiment in the Seattle area is showing some promise.
It involves providing financial and other incentives to encourage more poor families to relocate to what are called "high opportunity" areas. These are neighborhoods that have been identified by economist Raj Chetty, who runs Harvard University's Opportunity Insights program, as places where low-income children have grown up to have more successful lives, with higher earnings, more college degrees and fewer teen births.
Chetty's team, which includes researchers from Harvard, Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and elsewhere, is working with the Seattle and King County housing authorities to see if they can get families to move to these neighborhoods, with the hope that it will break the cycle of poverty.
The initial results indicate that the program is working. Families receiving the extra help were almost four times as likely to move to a high-opportunity area as those who did not — 54% compared with 14%.
Monica Rose, one of the study participants, is a single mother of a 10-year-old. She knows how destructive it can be not to have stable housing as a child.
"I think I went to, like, 14 different schools, and I dropped out in the seventh grade," says the 32-year-old, who asked that we not use her full name because of a domestic abuse issue.
Monica Rose eventually went back to school, but it has been a long haul since. She and her daughter have had to move a lot in recent years, staying with family and friends, and even in a couple of shelters, as rents around Seattle have soared to among the highest in the nation.
But they hope that will soon end. They're about to move into a new two-bedroom apartment in northeast Seattle, in old Navy barracks being converted into affordable housing. "It's going to be really exciting to decorate our home, to be able to invite people inside and have it clear and warm and welcoming," she says. She's also looking forward to the stability.
Monica Rose has received what many low-income families compare to winning the lottery — a housing choice voucher, or government subsidy, that covers all of her rent over 30% of her income.
About 2 million families now get such vouchers, but one problem has been that most of them end up using the vouchers in low-income neighborhoods, where their children are more likely to grow up to be poor as well.
The new project, called Creating Moves to Opportunity, is trying to break up these pockets of poverty by providing voucher families with a package of extra incentives and counseling.
The experiment — funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Surgo Foundation — revolves around having "navigators" meet one-on-one with families to explain why moving to high-opportunity areas will benefit their children. They also guide families through the difficult process of getting an apartment in a hot rental market, showing them how to sell themselves as good tenants, almost like a job interview. And they provide additional financial assistance — capped at $2,600 per family — to cover moving costs and other one-time expenses.
The navigators then take the families on tours so they can see the high-opportunity areas around Seattle for themselves.
Navigator Sarah Birkebak recently showed some of her colleagues around one such area called Northgate. It's a mixed-income neighborhood with a lot to offer voucher holders, including a transit center, a children's hospital, a college and a community center with a preschool program and other activities.
"They have tons of family programming," Birkebak told the other navigators, who will soon be bringing families to the area. "It's really affordable usually. It's like $40 for a basketball camp."
The navigators also spend a lot of time cultivating landlords, who are sometimes reluctant to accept voucher holders, even though they're required to do so by state law. Some landlords don't want to deal with the government bureaucracy. But the navigators tell them that with vouchers, the rent is guaranteed. The new program also streamlines some of the paperwork and offers landlords insurance to protect against damages not covered by the security deposit.
For each family that ends up moving to a better neighborhood, the program costs about $1,700 more than if the family had used a voucher on its own to find a home. But sociologist Stefanie DeLuca of Johns Hopkins University says that this cost should more than pay for itself "in terms of lifetime earnings and taxes that are paid by children who grow up in higher-opportunity neighborhoods." The study estimates that children who move to these areas could earn about $183,000 more over their lifetimes on average and, presumably, will be less likely to need government aid like their parents do.
DeLuca says another key finding so far is that families don't need much convincing to move.
"What we saw in Seattle wasn't that they didn't know that some neighborhoods might be better than others," she says. "It's just the concept that it's possible for them to move there." Many of the families didn't think such neighborhoods were within reach.
Grigory Vodolazov and his wife were among those who were surprised. They ended up in a three-bedroom apartment in Bellevue, one of Seattle's most affluent suburbs. Their apartment is open and bright, with new appliances. The rent is $2,600 a month, mostly covered by the voucher.
"It looks expensive," remarks Vodolazov, pointing out the nice countertops in one of their two bathrooms. "We didn't expect to getting that actually."
The couple emigrated from Russia and have two sons, ages 9 and 3. The oldest has autism, one reason that living in this area — which has schools and medical facilities that cater to children with special needs — means so much to them. What it really offered, though, is hope for their children's future.
"It's opportunities," says Vodolazov. "I feel it every day in the air, right in the air. And it's for every member of my family."
And that's one other thing the researchers are looking for — clues about what it is that makes one neighborhood more promising than the next. It's clearly good schools and support systems, but also something else.
Samra Idris, a Libyan refugee who lives nearby with her husband and three small boys, says that people in Bellevue expect to succeed.
"You know the kids here is different," she says. "They smart. The families here, they support the kids." She says most are already saving for their children's college.
It's nothing like the neighborhood they came from in southern King County, where Idris says kids routinely dropped out of school and where her older son did not want to go to school because he was routinely hit on the bus. Now, he can't wait to go to school.
There are still some unanswered questions about the program. Right now, it involves only a few hundred families. But if it grows, it could face resistance from landlords and neighbors, as some voucher programs have in the past.
It's also unclear how long the families will stay in the high-opportunity areas and whether their children actually will succeed later in life.
And what about the neighborhoods left behind? What happens to them?
"People shouldn't have to move to opportunity. We should be able to make it [where they already live]," says DeLuca. "How we achieve creating opportunity in place, that's the question we haven't resolved yet."
In fact, almost half the families in the Seattle experiment decided to stay in low-income areas even when told that their children would likely do better somewhere else. Many said they preferred to stay close to their jobs or to family and friends.
Even Monica Rose admits that as excited as she is about moving to a more upscale area, she's also a bit nervous.
"I'm just not sure how it's going to go. If there's, you know, professionals that have a certain income and then for instance me, who has like virtually almost nothing, I do wonder how the cultures are going to mix," she says.
Still, she thinks, on balance, the move will be good for her daughter, even if it's years before anyone knows for sure.
The Seattle-area project will continue and likely be expanded to other cities as part of a national effort to find better ways to help poor families succeed.
Editor's note: The Gates Foundation is a financial supporter of NPR.