Does De-Concentration of Poverty Lead to Better Outcomes?

Since the case of Gautreax, when in 1976 the Supreme Court ordered an end to racially discriminatory practices in public housing, a wealth of research on the effects of concentration of poverty has been generated. 

Some studies suggest that de-concentrating poverty, especially to neighborhoods below a certain threshold of poverty, benefits poor families.  Others argue that putting stress on the natural social ties that families use to build support in tough neighborhoods by moving families to low-poverty areas is detrimental. Some new resources, including one with compelling findings of academic success for elementary school children in low-poverty schools, add more depth to the discussion.

First, a new HUD resource, Understanding Neighborhood Effects of Concentrated Poverty gives an overview of some of the research and its limitations. This article reviews findings evaluating HUD’s Moving to Work program, among others.

One particularly vexing research problem, points out the article, is the complication of separating the effects of neighborhoods from individual characteristics, which can also impact outcomes.

“Researchers can control for basic family characteristics such as race, income, and education, but other, unobserved variables can result in either over- or understating neighborhood effects,” poverty researcher Margery Austin Turner reminds us.

Meanwhile, a new study of Montgomery County, Maryland, suggests far better school outcomes for very poor families when they live in housing located in neighborhoods in low-poverty school districts.  

This study, by Heather Schwartz, examines the unique case of Montgomery County, which adopted an inclusionary zoning policy 40 years ago. This policy sets aside 12-15% of units in new subdivisions for sale or rent at below-market prices.  What’s more, the local public housing authority has a right to buy and use up to a third of these units. As a result, the housing authority currently owns and operates about 700 of the homes as scattered site public housing, where the average income of residents was just under $22,500 in 2007. 

The public housing units are scattered in neighborhoods which vary in poverty levels, and public housing residents are randomly assigned to the homes. Due to this arrangement, Schwartz was able to make a valid comparison of outcomes for the families in lower and higher-poverty areas within the county.

What she found was that after five to seven years, students in public housing who were attending low-poverty elementary schools far outperformed their counterparts attending schools with more poverty.  What's more, Schwartz found that “By the end of elementary school, the initial, large achievement gap between children in public housing who attended the district’s most advantaged schools and their non-poor students in the district was cut by half for math and one-third for reading”. 

Of note, the academic gains for public housing kids were greatest when 20% or fewer of the kids in their schools qualified for free and reduced meals.  At higher levels of school poverty, gains were not as great.  Statistically significant gains also depended upon children remaining in their school for at least five years. The public housing families with school-age children in this study had an average housing tenure of eight years.

For more analysis and methods for this study, see Housing Policy is School Policy.

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