December 1st, 2012

Study identifies happiness as worthy public policy goal

Moving from a bad neighborhood to a less distressed one can improve a low-income family’s physical and mental health over time even without raising financial status, a new study finds.

Public housing families relocated in a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sponsored large-scale, randomized housing mobility experiment called Moving to Opportunity ultimately didn’t achieve economic self-sufficiency, a team of social scientists that examined data collected over a 10-15 year period found. But the families reported greater levels of happiness and less obesity and diabetes.

The results raise important implications for policymakers, who have only focused on income changes when addressing income inequality, according to University of Chicago public policy professor Jens Ludwig, Ph.D. Ludwig is lead author of “Neighborhood Effects on the Long-Term Well-Being of Low-Income Adults,” published last September in the journal Science. Co-authors included two Harvard University faculty members, Lawrence Katz, Ph.D., an economics professor and Ronald C. Kessler, Ph.D., professor of health care policy.

“We know that people at the bottom of the income distribution over time have become ever more likely to live in neighborhoods in which large shares of other residents are living in poverty,” Ludwig wrote in an e-mail.

“Our study suggests that living in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods like these have adverse effects on people’s health and well-being that is happiness. So ignoring the trend towards greater geographic concentration of poverty and its implications for happiness means that we have been understating the degree to which inequality in people’s well-being has increased over time in America.”

The study measured improvement in well-being as it tracked families moving out of housing in census tracts with extreme poverty. For every 13-percentage point decrease in the neighborhood poverty rate, participants reported a rise in happiness equivalent to a $13,000 increase in annual income.

Moving to Opportunity surveyed 4,604 low-income public housing families in five U.S. cities: Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Some families were assigned Section 8 vouchers to subsidize private-market rents in census tracts with 1990 poverty rates below 10 percent while others received vouchers without any relocation constraint. A control group received no assistance. Some 48 percent of the first group and 63 percent of the unrestricted group managed to relocate with their vouchers.

Most household heads were African-American or Hispanic females and less than 40 percent had a high school diploma. The majority of participants reported they signed up for the program to get away from gangs and drugs.

Interest in the effects of geographic location and mobility on shaping the future paths of low-income families grew in the late 1960s out of a federal court ruling ordering the Chicago Housing Authority and HUD to remedy extreme racial segregation imposed on public housing applicants and residents. The resulting Gautreaux Program, named for tenant activist Dorothy Gautreaux, provided tenant-based vouchers for about 7,100 black families to move to predominantly white or racially mixed neighborhoods. Researchers in the late 1980s found that families relocated to suburban communities under the program had measurable improvements in their lives: Adults were more likely to be employed while children were less likely to drop out of school and more likely to attend a four-year college.

The causal link between the new neighborhood and improvements in lives was unclear. Moving to Opportunity developed to test whether moving from high-poverty to low-poverty areas could bring about positive changes in the lives of the poor. The data collected broaden the scope of what factors should be considered in making such an assessment.

By Janine Weisman

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