Academic journal article Cityscape

Moving to Opportunity: Why, How, and What Next?

Academic journal article Cityscape

Moving to Opportunity: Why, How, and What Next?

Article excerpt


We discuss the policy background for the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) for Fair Housing demonstration experiment, the innovations in its design and implementation, and a few of the implications for future policy. We explain why a full-blown randomized experiment was necessary, in what ways MTO was unique, and whether the issues posed by concentrated poverty are the same today as when Congress first authorized the experiment.

The opinions expressed in this article are those oj the author and do not necessarìly reflect those ojthe U.S. Department oj Housing and Urban Development.


In 2001, Shroder wrote the following in this journal (italics added):

Moving to Opportunity (MTO) is a demonstration designed to ensure a rigorous evaluation of the impacts of helping very low-income families with children to move from public and assisted housing in high-poverty inner-city neighborhoods to middle-class neighborhoods throughout a metropolitan area.

Poverty in the United States has become increasingly concentrated in high-poverty areas. These concentrated high-poverty usually urban, and frequently segregated neighborhoods are widely thought to deny their residents opportunities by denying them access to good schools, safe streets, successful role models, and good places to work. . .

We do not know the extent to which moving the poor out of concentrated poverty neighborhoods, in fact, increases their life chances. Poor people who live in concentrated poverty may differ from other poor people both in ways that can be observed, like race or age, and in ways that may not be observed, like aspiraüon or persistence. Any differences in people's outcomes that seem to be associated with the neighborhoods in which they reside might be caused by those neighborhoods - or might be caused by unobserved factors that also affect the sorting of people into different neighborhoods. Only an experiment in which neighborhoods are allocated randomly can answer this question. (Shroder, 2001: 57)

In this article, we discuss the policy background for the experiment, the innovations in its design and implementation, and a few of the policy implications, providing particular attention to the items italicized in the preceding passage from 2001.

The problem of concentrated poverty was much in the news in the early 1990s, when MTO began. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), in principle, could have conducted this experiment 10 years earlier or 10 years later than it did, but Congress would not have had quite the same motivation to authorize it. In the early 1990s, gangs ruled or contested certain neighborhoods in the inner city, obtaining large illicit revenues from crack cocaine. In a background of high poverty, family disintegration, and social isolation, either the illicit revenues or the effects of the drug itself drove a tenfold increase in the rate of homicide among young African-American men in the late 1980s (Cook, 2009). Journalists like Kotlowitz (1991) and Lehman (1991) produced affecting portraits of brutality, isolation, and hopelessness oppressing another generation of young people. The idea of an underclass barely under the control of the larger society grew markedly after the Los Angeles riots of 1992, associated with the beating of Rodney King.

The subsidized housing stock was in the center of the storm. The National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing (1992) estimated that 86,000 public housing units (6 percent of the stock) were severely distressed, based on high incidences of serious crime, physical deterioration, and a constellation of management issues - high vacancy rates, high move-out rates, high refusal rates from tenants offered units, and low rates of rent collection. Much of the distressed stock was located in the center-city areas of blighted "ghetto poverty" that urban planners had no idea how to address (Jargowsky and Bane, 1991). …

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