Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Few Detectable Effects of Moving to Opportunity on Youth Outcomes

The life chances of children vary dramatically across neighborhoods. Youth who grow up in areas of concentrated poverty tend to have elevated rates of a wide range of adverse outcomes—such as school dropout, low test scores, and delinquency—even after statistically controlling for observable characteristics of the youth and their families (Chalk and Phillips, 1996; Duncan and Murnane, 2011; Ellen and Turner, 1997; Ginther, Haveman, and Wolfe, 2000; Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn, 2008, 2000; Shonkoff and Phillips, 2000). These patterns have led to a longstanding concern that neighborhood environments may exert an independent causal effect on the life chances of young people. Because low-income individuals comprise nearly one-half of the 8.7 million people living in census tracts with poverty levels of 40 percent or higher (Kneebone, Nadeau, and Berube, 2011), poor children growing up in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty may be “doubly disadvantaged”—they face potential risks from growing up in a low-income household and in an economically poor neighborhood.

Evidence about the effects of neighborhood environments on children and youth is central to the design of a wide range of public policies, from means-tested housing programs to place-based strategies such as those of the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED’s) Promise Neighborhoods and Harlem Children’s Zone, Inc. Empirically isolating the causal effects of neighborhood environments on youth outcomes from the range of other youth and family characteristics with which they are correlated is complicated, however. Most families have at least some degree of choice about where they live. As a result, hard-to-measure individual- or family-level attributes associated with neighborhood selection and directly affecting youth outcomes can confound the estimated effects of neighborhood environment.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) for Fair Housing demonstration randomized mobility experiment to try to overcome this empirical challenge of selection bias (that is, of nonrandom associations between neighbor-hood characteristics and the preexisting characteristics of residents that influenced their decisions to live in the neighborhood). Between 1994 and 1998, MTO recruited more than 4,600 families with children living in severely distressed public housing projects in five cities (Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City). HUD offered some MTO families the opportunity to use a housing voucher to move into private-market housing in lower poverty neighborhoods and did not make the same offer to others. This random assignment to different groups—experimental, Section 8, and control—in the MTO study broke the link between family preferences and neighborhood environments, and it thus provides us with the opportunity to overcome the standard self-selection concern and identify the causal effects of neighborhoods on child and youth outcomes.

This article summarizes key findings regarding the effects of neighborhood characteristics found in the long-term (10- to 15-year) survey of MTO youth, who were approximately ages 10 to 20 in December 2007 (age 11 or younger at baseline), conducted for the final impacts evaluation (Sanbonmatsu et al., 2011).

Previous MTO research, based on data collected 4 to 7 years after random assignment, showed a more mixed and complicated pattern of findings than that predicted by the existing neighborhood effects literature. At the time of the followup survey for the interim impacts evaluation (Orr et al., 2003), MTO had produced few detectable effects on the achievement test scores or health of chil-dren, most of whom were already of school age when their families signed up for MTO (Fortson and Sanbonmatsu, 2010; Sanbonmatsu et al., 2006). Violent-crime arrests were fewer among male and female youth who moved via the experimental group vouchers compared with those assigned to the control group that received no vouchers. MTO effects on most other behavioral outcomes varied by gender, however, with beneficial effects on female youth and adverse effects for males (Kling, Liebman, and Katz, 2007; Kling, Ludwig, and Katz, 2005).

This article, The Long-Term Effects of Moving to Opportunity on Youth Outcomes addresses three key questions for the final impacts evaluation:

(1) Because disruptive effects from the act of moving are likely to fade and the beneficial influences of better neighbor-hoods likely to grow with time, do MTO’s effects on children become more beneficial over time?
(2) Are MTO’s beneficial effects on children concentrated on the subset who had not entered school when their families enrolled in the program? Early childhood is a particularly malleable stage of early brain development and, therefore, a time when children are perhaps most susceptible to the benefits of social interventions (Becker and Murphy, 2000; Carneiro and Heckman, 2003; Knudsen et al., 2006; Shonkoff and Phillips, 2000).
(3) Do the gender differences in MTO effects that the followup survey for the interim impacts evaluation found emerge in the final impacts evaluation?

The authors draw their outcome measures from survey self-reports of behavior, schooling, mental and physical health, and peer relationships; math and reading achievement assessments; physical measurements of height and weight; and administrative records on other outcomes such as quarterly earnings from state unemployment insurance (UI) data and arrest records.

Findings from analyses of youth in the long-term survey for the final impacts evaluation show that MTO had few detectable effects on a range of schooling outcomes, even for those children who were of preschool age at study entry. MTO also had few detectable effects on physical health outcomes. In other youth outcome domains, patterns of effects on youth were similar to, but more muted than, those in the interim impacts evaluation (Orr et al., 2003), with favorable patterns among female youth—particularly on mental health outcomes—and less favorable patterns among male youth.

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