Enabling low income households to move to high opportunity neighborhoods is one way to promote equity and intergenerational mobility.  But some people apparently don’t want anyone to move.

Last year, we profiled an experiment in Seattle that tapped into the insights of the Equality of Opportunity Project. As regular City Observatory readers will know, Raj Chetty and his colleagues have shown how local neighborhood characteristics play an out-sized role in determining lifetime economic success. Kids from low income families growing up in high poverty neighborhoods routinely end up with less education, lower income, and more incarceration that otherwise similar kids growing up in mixed income neighborhoods in the same city or metro area.  Working with the Seattle Housing Authority, Chetty’s team designed a program of vouchers and housing search assistance that helped low income families (usually concentrated in just a few neighborhoods) to look at other neighborhoods in the city for housing. The preliminary results of the experiment are promising.

But Cody Tuttle writing at Next City isn’t having any of it.  In a piece entitled “Why we shouldn’t be so quick to move people out of low income neighborhoods,” Tuttle outlines three reasons why these families moving to higher opportunity neighborhoods is a bad thing:  In Tuttle’s view, it weakens low income neighborhoods, it won’t help those who move, and it  will trigger white flight in the neighborhoods they move to.

If any of that were true, it would be a good reason to think twice about this experiment.  But, in our opinion, none of those three points hold any water. Instead, the Seattle experiment is an illustration of one of the key ways we can start breaking down the economic and racial segregation that perpetuates poverty in US cities.

Segregation amplifies poverty and inequality

Before we dig in, let’s go back to first principles.  American cities are still deeply segregated by race and income. That segregation, as it turns out is a pivotal reason why poor people stay poor.  A growing body of evidence shows low income people and people of color fare much better economically when the places they live aren’t so segregated, either by race or income.  In contrast, neighborhoods of concentrated poverty make poverty worse; and, as we’ve demonstrated a City Observatory, we’ve been making more and more neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, and a bigger fraction of the urban poor are trapped in them than ever before.  So, in the aggregate, breaking up the pattern of income and racial segregation in cities is essential to breaking down the barriers to economic mobility.

As bit of a simplification, there are two ways to promote income integration:  if some richer people move into poorer neighborhoods, and if some poorer move into richer neighborhoods.  The first strategy (richer people into poorer neighborhoods) is gentrification, and despite the knee-jerk opposition that term generates, gentrification has been shown to be benign, if not actually helpful to long term residents of low income neighborhoods.  We’ll not dig further into that here, but instead focus on the issue at hand: enabling low income families to find and rent homes in higher income/less poor neighborhoods.  Bottom line though: if you oppose both gentrification and low income people moving to higher income neighborhoods, then you’re pretty much in favor of maintaining the current income segregation of US metro areas.

The Seattle Experiment: Vouchers for Voluntary Moves to New Neighborhoods

So let’s take a closer look at the Seattle experiment.  Over the past couple of years, the Seattle Housing Authority has given vouchers to about 200 households in the experiment’s treatment group.  They were also provided with neighborhood information, apartment finding services, and help with deposits and applications. And here’s the critical part of the experiment:  the participants chose their housing, not the housing authority.  So with that as backdrop (hundreds of low income families given wider choice, and many of them choosing higher opportunity neighborhoods), let’s consider Tuttle’s three arguments.

First, Tuttle argues that the loss of these households harms the neighborhoods they leave.  If these household leave low income neighborhoods, its “removing an integral facet of the community.” If you have a naive model that says every resident of a low income neighborhood has lived their forever, and has a deep commitment to the neighborhood, that might conceivably be true.  But low income neighborhoods have exceptionally transient residents; roughly half of all renters have lived in their homes two years or less.  And this is clearly a straw man: If this were massive, mandatory relocation, the author might have a point.  But what the Seattle program does is provide information and wider choices to a few hundred low income families. And every participating family voluntarily chooses its new neighborhood. Clearly some families are attached to their existing neighborhood; this experiment doesn’t force them to leave. More broadly, as Margery Turner and her colleagues at the Urban Institute have shown, moving to a different neighborhood is a common way low income households progress out of poverty; this experiment helps provide that opportunity to more low income households.

Tuttle’s second argument is that moving to a new neighborhood doesn’t help the low income families that move. Tuttle cites some “earlier” work on the Moving to Opportunity experiment, and by Chetty to support that point. But that leaves out the latest research on the subject by Chetty and others. As we’ve chronicled at City Observatory, the re-analysis of the Moving to Opportunity data, Eric Chyn‘s study of the Chicago Housing Authority, and Chetty research have confirmed that these high opportunity neighborhoods have big payouts, especially for the kids who grow up there. The Seattle experiment estimates that kids moving to high opportunity neighborhoods will see lifetime earnings gains of $200,000.  The authors also report that more than twice as many households that chose high opportunity neighborhoods reported being satisfied with their new neighborhood than did the control group.  The overwhelming evidence points to the benefits to low income kids growing up in mixed income neighborhoods, they’ve chosen them voluntarily, and they report they like it.

Tuttle’s third argument is a blast from the past.  Enabling some lower income families to move to high opportunity neighborhoods, we’re told, will trigger “white flight.” That’s an argument that may have resonated in the 1950s or 1960s, but today, if Tuttle hadn’t noticed, there’s a considerable influx of white people, particularly well-educated young adults back to cities (so much so, and so noticeably in some lower income and minority neighborhoods, that its decried as a problem). The data for the past twenty years shows that when urban neighborhoods become more integrated, they tend to stay that way. We’ve profiled a paper by Kwan Ok Lee, who shows that once a neighborhood became “multi-ethnic” there was a 90 percent chance that it stayed that way for the next two decades. Our own report, America’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods shows a large number of urban neighborhoods that have achieved both racial/ethnic and income diversity. Again, its worth noting that the Seattle experiment in the aggregate involves only hundreds of households, and they’re moving to neighborhoods throughout the city; its unlikely that the moves are sufficient in scale in any location to be noticeable, much less trigger a new wave of “white flight.”

So, in sum, enabling a few hundreds of lower income households to look further afield for housing, including in those neighborhoods where opportunity is highest, and letting them choose voluntarily to move there, hardly does damage to the low income neighborhoods they’re leaving, gives them and especially their kids access to an environment that produces demonstrably better results, and is not, in the decade of the 2020s, when there’s such a demand to live in cities, going to trigger white flight.

Its simply unreasonable–and unfair–to ask low income families to wait until their neighborhood gets better to find a better life for themselves and their children. For many, their best hope will be to find housing in a neighborhood that’s safer, has better schools and has less concentrated poverty and its associated ills. If we’re going to seriously tackle economic and racial segregation of cities, policies like the Seattle voucher experiment point to one small way to move in the right direction.