Last week the Retro Report, a New York Times video series, featured an interview with J-PAL North America scientific director Lawrence Katz (Harvard). The article describes the evolution of Moving to Opportunity (MTO), a housing mobility demonstration program developed by the Clinton administration in the early 1990s to benefit thousands of families living in public housing projects in the highest-poverty neighborhoods of Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. MTO randomly assigned some families to receive housing choice vouchers to move to higher-income neighborhoods, with the hope of improving their economic opportunities and educational outcomes.
However, the early evidence from the program showed mixed results. Families provided with opportunities to move to higher-income areas ended up being happier and healthier in the short- and medium-term, but MTO moves did not markedly improve either parents’ employment outcomes or children’s test scores. Interest in housing mobility programs waned in the face of ambiguous initial findings. But after nearly two decades, J-PAL affiliate Raj Chetty (Stanford), Nathaniel Hendren (Harvard), and Katz have uncovered reasons for optimism. Although teenagers who relocated as part of MTO did no better on average than their counterparts who didn’t move, their younger brothers and sisters grew up to go to college at much higher rates and to earn substantially more at their future jobs than did the comparable children in the control group. “Every extra year of childhood spent in a better neighborhood seems to matter,” Chetty told Retro Report. In Katz’s words, “neighborhoods and childhood development are long investments, and one has to have some patience. Most things that are investments take a while to pay off.”
Read the full New York Times article and watch the video here or check out J-PAL’s Policy Briefcase on Moving to Opportunity. The Chetty, Hendren, and Katz study was published in the American Economic Review in 2016 and is available here.
See more media coverage of Katz and Chetty’s research on MTO: