Neighborhoods Matter, But So Does Community

9.13.12 | Living in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty isolates residents. The argument goes, far away from jobs, people have a harder time accessing employment, support services, and improving their own lives. William Julius Wilson has called this a “spatial mismatch.”

We’ve written before about the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) demonstration study that tested whether giving housing vouchers to public housing residents to help very poor families move into lower-poverty neighborhoods would improve family well being.

The study has been rigorously evaluated. Yet, as we reported last year, when HUD released their ten-year follow up report the conclusions were surprising.  Those families who moved with vouchers to better neighborhoods showed improved physical and mental health outcomes after five or seven years. Women and children experienced reductions in things like diabetes and extreme obesity, for example. However, these families did not, as many had expected, show improvements in employment, income or educational attainment.

The research has been controversial. The random assignment experiment was designed to test whether it’s possible to tease out neighborhood effects from the role of individual or family circumstances.

But a new analysis from the Urban Institute aims to shed some more light on some of these complexities by taking a closer look at the MTO families who lived for longer amounts of time in lower-poverty neighborhoods. Turns out that the families who were given the vouchers for rentals in low-poverty neighborhoods, along with counseling services, weren’t able to live in these new neighborhoods for very long. Many families spent only a year or two there.

In their paper “Benefits of Living in High-Opportunity Neighborhoods,” Urban Institute researchers Margery Austin Turner, Austin Nichols, Jennifer Comey and colleagues found that MTO families who lived for longer periods in neighborhoods with lower poverty did actually achieve better outcomes in work and school, as well as in health.

In a post titled “Did Somebody Say Neighborhoods Don’t Matter?,” at the MetroTrends blog Turner explains their new results:

 Adults living in lower-poverty neighborhoods are more likely to have jobs and earn more, other things being equal. Youth (both boys and girls) living in lower-poverty neighborhoods have higher English and math test scores. These benefits are not only statistically significant but also meaningful in size. For example, an adult who lived in neighborhoods with poverty rates averaging 16 percent over a decade has a predicted monthly income $233 higher at the end of the period than an adult who lived in neighborhoods with poverty rates averaging 41 percent. The corresponding differences in boys’ predicted English and math test scores equate to nearly a year of instruction.

Researchers say that rather than a one way cause and effect, their results may show the complicated relationships (they call them “feedback loops”) between factors that make up family success and neighborhood environment.

For example, they write “families may move to or stay in better neighborhoods because they got a good job or increased their income; or parents who see the value of education for their children’s future might simultaneously relocate to a neighborhood with great schools and also motivate their children to succeed academically.”

They say their results point to continued support for programs to help poor families locate and afford housing in “high-opportunity” neighborhoods.

So neighborhoods do matter, but they are far from the only thing that matters. Training, education, and employment services that boost marketable skills also matter, as does individual and family circumstance.

That was evident in a piece published this week in New York Magazine that does a good job of bringing the voices of actual residents of low-income communities to the forefront of these debates.

These days cities nationwide have dismantled their high-rise public housing towers in favor of low-rise, mixed-income developments and more support for private sector section 8 voucher programs. But the high-rise developments in New York City remain.

The Land That Time and Money Forgot” by Mark Jacobson reminds us that low-income communities (spatially mismatched as many may be) have very important strengths of their own — networks of support and connections that researchers sometimes call social capital, connections that residents draw on for survival and strength. These are factors that may be invisible to outsiders who see only crime and decay in low-income neighborhoods.

Ninety-one-year-old Connie Taylor, for example, profiled in the article, sits at her window in Far Rockaway, Queens doing “resident watch” in the late afternoon hours. Jacobson describes Taylor driving her motorized wheelchair out the door and across the street to shame the neighborhood men from buying drugs at her local corner store.

Another example is John Johnson, a resident of Mott Haven Houses in the South Bronx, who’s also chairman of the Bronx South District Council of Presidents, a tenant association. After a series of delays in installing security cameras in his building, Johnson hired his own local team to set up cameras and wifi so residents could see the feed on their smartphones and computers, to keep watch, stay safe, and deter crime.

In colorful prose and some fascinating history, including the recent accusations of financial mismanagement by NYCHA leadership, the article details how these developments went from being “a source of municipal pride to an invisible society people would rather forget exists.” It’s a great read for anyone interested in the history and future of public housing in America and those who are pondering the relationships between the neighborhood and the individual in determining success. Check it out here.

Photo/ Richard Alexander Caraballo

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