There's been a lot of talk about the growing income and wealth inequality in America, especially with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Solutions have yet to arise.
Research published in the journal Science suggests that leaving a high-poverty area for one with less poverty concentration increases the well-being of the families who move. Of course, most people do not have this luxury, and more research needs to be done to determine how neighborhoods themselves can be improved.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development spearheaded a program called Moving to Opportunity in the 1990s. Families in five cities in some of the most distressed housing projects in the country were randomly assigned to move via a lottery system.
African-American and Hispanic females were most likely to be the leaders of the households in this study, and fewer than 40% of them had finished high school. The study took place in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.
Those selected to move received a housing voucher that enabled them to move to a less-disadvantaged neighborhood. More than 4,500 families living in public housing received vouchers.
A research team followed up with the families 10 to 15 years later to see how changing neighborhoods made a difference in their lives.
Moving to a less-disadvantaged neighborhood did not seem to affect schooling outcomes for children or earning outcomes for adults; it did not appear to influence employment or welfare receipt. But researchers did find improvements in the well-being of the families involved.
In fact, the happiness improvements that the families reported would be the equivalent to the gains expected from a $13,000 increase in family income.
Why is that? It's hard to know what matters most for increasing well-being, said Jens Ludwig, lead study author and professor at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.
Safety is probably part of the story, he said. At the beginning of the study, many families said that they wanted to move in order to get away from gangs or drugs.
"MTO (Moving to Opportunity) thus impacted what the residents cared most about, rather than what policy-makers deemed most important," writes Robert Sampson of Harvard University in an accompanying perspective on the study in Science.
But note that only about half of families who could have used the voucher did so, partly because to move and secure an apartment in a neighborhood with less poverty proved to be problematic, Sampson points out. And some moved to neighborhoods on the downswing already, or back to impoverished neighborhoods.
Study authors noted that racial segregation is on the decline, but income segregation has been increasing - and it's the latter that's related to well-being.
An important potential lesson is to learn more about what features of neighborhoods could be changed to improve residents' well-being without having to move anyone, Ludwig said.
"It's hard to imagine the federal government enacting some sort of policy that will move millions of families," he noted.
Safety upgrades such as putting more police officers on neighborhood streets may make a difference, and improving the quality of local schools can reduce crime, too. But with budgets as tight as they are in many cities, such efforts are challenging.
Prior research suggested that the families in the Moving to Opportunity study who had moved were less likely to have problems with extreme obesity and diabetes.
"Durable neighborhood inequality sharply influences individual housing choice and thus neighborhood-level change, but it remains unclear whether people-based or place-based interventions will be more effective in confronting persistent spatial divisions by race and class," Sampson wrote.