Can housing vouchers break up concentrated poverty?

11.14.2011  | Two recent reports on efforts to break up concentrated poverty prompted me to pull out my copy of William Julius Wilson’s seminal read, “The Truly Disadvantaged.” Dipping into it again makes me realize just how prescient that book, published in 1987, was. The recent efforts to move families out of neighborhoods with high poverty and nearer jobs are in some respects a test of his theories–and those theories hold up pretty well.  

In “The Truly Disadvantaged,” Wilson argues that the demise of manufacturing in cities was leaving many less-educated black men high and dry, making marriage and family out of reach for many. The lower-skilled jobs were moving to the suburbs and jobs in the city were replaced by finance and other high-skilled, high-paying work—out of reach for those with just a high school degree or less. At the same time, middle-class blacks who had lived side by side their lower-income neighbors were decamping for the suburbs or more affluent areas of the cities, leaving behind a concentrated disadvantage. Little did Wilson know just how fast the economy would change, as globalization fast-forwarded the process.

Over the course of the next 20 years, concentrated poverty would remain stubbornly unmovable, and the spatial mismatch he identified between skills and jobs would only widen as the suburbs grew and jobs moved ever outward. One of the most iconic symbols of concentrated poverty, high-rise public housing buildings, would become sites of some of the saddest and most depressing news stories of the past decades.

In recent years, those buildings have met with the wrecking ball as the harms of concentrated poverty became finally untenable. In their stead, the federal government has promoted, with some controversy attached, mixed-income developments and subsidies to low-income families to move to neighborhoods of their choice. Rather than be tied by poverty to a inner-city neighborhood, the thinking goes, provide the families with vouchers that pay a good chunk of the rent to landlords each month, with families picking up the balance (not to exceed a certain share of their income).

The Housing Choice Vouchers (formerly known as Section 8 certificates) is one of those programs. A recent snapshot of its results between 2000 and 2008 shows some promise in the move of low-income families into the suburbs, where the jobs are. However, there are some cautions as well.

The report, “The Suburbanization of Housing Choice Voucher Recipients,” by Brookings Institution scholars Kenya Covington, Lance Freeman, and Michael A. Stoll, finds that Housing Choice Voucher (HVC) recipients are now almost equally likely to be suburban residents as they are urban, though they’re frequently moving to lower-income suburbs. That the poor are becoming less urban is no more apparent than in this finding: In 2005-2009, suburbs accounted for about 70 percent of all metropolitan residents, and 54 percent of poor individuals.

Cities in all four regions of the United States saw increases in the number of residents using HVC vouchers in the suburbs, except in the Midwest. The report also finds that the suburbanization of HCV recipients was driven largely by black families. In 2000, 40% of black HCV recipients lived in the suburbs. By 2008, that had grown to 44%. Among whites, the suburbanization rate of HCV recipients declined by about 1 percentage point over this period, and among Latinos, the rate changed only slightly.

The top five metro areas with highest share of HVC recipients in the suburbs were Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach; Bradenton-Sarasota-Venice, FL; Poughkeepsie-Newburgh-Middletown, NY; Orlando-Kissimmee, FL; and Scranton-Wilkes-Barre, PA. Those with the smallest shares were San Jose, CA, Albuquerque, Fresno, Memphis, and Colorado Springs.

Not all moves to suburbs are to areas where there are good connections to decent-paying jobs, however. As we posted last week, many suburban communities are becoming concentrations of low income. By 2008, 48% of the voucher holders lived in low-income suburbs.

In addition, the change between 2000 and 2008 in the share of HVC families moving to higher-income suburbs was modest—only 2.1 percentage points over the period (or possibly 2.1%– the text and the accompanying chart in the report conflict). This was similar to the increase for poor families in general (who were not using subsidies).

Likewise, the gains in living in suburbs with high job growth was less than 3% for both groups. That said, five cities are doing better than others in connecting the voucher recipients to suburbs with high job accessibility:  Toledo, Charleston, SC, Syracuse, Des Moines, and Louisville.

Another program, Moving to Opportunity (MTO), also has echoes of Wilson in its attempt to break up concentrated poverty by giving poor families the chance to move to better neighborhoods (although in this case not necessarily suburbs).  It is also one of the most rigorously evaluated—and HUD recently released the ten-year follow-up report.

In that program, families in “the projects” were given housing vouchers with the stipulation that they move to a neighborhood with poverty rates below 10%. A second group was given a voucher that they could use anywhere. A control group was given no vouchers at all, although were still eligible for all housing programs. The first group was required to stay in the lower-poverty neighborhood for a set amount of time. After that, they could move again if they chose.

The evaluation comparing the outcomes of the three groups shows, on the one hand, that moving to higher-income neighborhoods can bring many advantages. However, improved economic self-sufficiency is not one of them.

Specifically, the 10-year evaluation finds that families who moved to lower-poverty neighborhoods:

  • Live in higher-quality homes
  • Be in slightly less racially segregated neighborhoods (modest effects only)
  • Experience social ties with relatively more affluent people
  • Feel safer in their neighborhoods.

Over the entire 10–15 year study period, the control groups’ neighborhoods had poverty rates that averaged approximately 40 percent. For those families in the experimental and Section 8 groups that moved through MTO, average neighborhood poverty rates were about 18 and 11 percentage points lower, respectively. That’s a pretty sizable change, all things considered. Median household income was almost $19,000 higher in the census tracts where experimental group movers lived. MTO moves also made participants feel safer in their new neighborhoods, with the exception of male youth.

In addition, living in higher income neighborhoods also boosted mental and physical health. Compared with the control group, adults who moved to higher-income neighborhoods had:

  • a lower prevalence of extreme obesity
  • a lower prevalence of diabetes
  • fewer self-reported physical limitations
  • less overall psychological distress
  • less depression, and
  • less anxiety.

But, MTO had no sizable effects on economic self-sufficiency—a disappointment, and surprise, given the theories about the spatial mismatch of jobs and the poor. Compared with control group members, experimental and Section 8 group adults have:

  • similar employment levels and earnings
  • similar incomes
  • less food insufficiency
  • somewhat higher food stamp and TANF use (experimental group only).

As the authors of the report conclude, it appears that training, education, and employment services that boost a person’s marketable skills are also necessary. In other words, just moving is only part of the story. We must also address personal barriers to working.  Yet, coupled with the other improvements in their lives, moving to better neighborhoods still has its benefits. Perhaps it will be the next generation that will see the benefits to jobs and earnings.

As Wilson also argued in “The Truly Disadvantaged,” without addressing the root of the cause for the concentration of poverty – in this case, the changes in the economy that left many behind as a knowledge economy supplanted an economy built on brawn—we will not get far in addressing poverty and its ills. It is not only a spatial mismatch, but a skills mismatch that must be addressed.  Wilson emphasizes the importance of training and education initiatives to upgrade the skills of young blacks and connect them with emerging jobs in a changing labor market. Moving to those jobs is just one step.

photo credit: MQ Aquino, chicago

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