Published in the Spring 2009 issue of SSA Magazine

This article is a sidebar to the "A Community Under Construction" story

-Ed Finkel

Fifteen years ago, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development launched Moving to Opportunity (MTO), a demonstration project in Chicago and four other cities that provided housing vouchers and relocation counseling to very low-income public housing households to assist a move to less economically distressed areas. The program was a randomized housing-mobility experiment designed to track the neighborhood effects on the life chances of low-income families.

Now that the 10-year experiment is over, the question is, how did the families and children fare when moving to a more wealthy community? Jens Ludwig says that the answers were much more complicated than the program's architects probably expected.

Ludwig, the School's McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service, Law, and Public Policy, and several colleagues researched MTO's effect both in broad terms and, in a separate paper, specific to the question of youth crime. They found little impact on adult economic self-sufficiency but positive (and quite large) impacts on adult mental health and the rate at which youth are involved with violent crime. Female youth also saw a drop in crime in general, but male youth were if anything more likely than those who stayed behind in public housing to be arrested for property crime.

Ludwig says it's not well understood why the economic impacts are not more dramatic and why the impacts on crime seem so different by gender. "We have a lot of after-the-fact theorizing now that we've seen the results, but these findings were not what most people were predicting," he says. "My experiences working on MTO make me somewhat unsure about the relative value of people- versus place-based social policies. I'd like to see more research on what a successful place-based social policy would look like in practice."