Academic journal article Cityscape

Examining Mobility Outcomes in the Housing Choice Voucher Program: Neighborhood Poverty, Employment, and Public School Quality

Academic journal article Cityscape

Examining Mobility Outcomes in the Housing Choice Voucher Program: Neighborhood Poverty, Employment, and Public School Quality

Article excerpt


Low-income housing policies seeking to deconcentrate poverty and increase opportunities through mobility have produced mixed results. The Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program, for example, resulted in some beneficial outcomes for low-income households moving from high- to low-poverty neighborhoods, but it did not produce the widespread positive effects anticipated by many policymakers and researchers. The Housing Choice Voucher Program (HCVP) does not require moves to low-poverty neighborhoods, as MTO did, but rather it relies on a weaker policy of choice to achieve more income-diverse neighborhoods. As compared with what researchers have learned about the MTO participants, less is known concerning the mobility behavior and outcomes of HCVP recipients. Using survey data from voucher holders under the jurisdiction of two local housing authorities in California combined with secondary data from multiple sources, this article examines a range of outcomes, including neighborhood poverty rates, employment, and school quality, associated with mobility in the HCVP The results of the analyses show that movers did not have better outcomes than nonmovers but, compared with conditions in their previous residence, movers lived in neighborhoods with lower poverty rates and better school quality after they moved. By contrast, employment for movers dropped significantly from before to after their moves.


Compelling arguments about the harmful effects of poverty concentration contributed to a shift in federal policy during the past two decades. Support for the development of large public housing projects, common before 1970, faded, and approaches to promoting mixed-income environments were at the center of the policy discourse. The rehabilitation of public housing through Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE VI) and policies aimed at discouraging poverty concentration in the Housing Choice Voucher Program (HCVP) emerged as strategies to thwart the replication of social problems in impoverished communities. Strong empirical evidence of the effects of these policies was notably limited at the time of their initial implementation.

Debates about policies promoting poverty déconcentration and mixed-income living environments are informed increasingly by empirical research in the United States and abroad; however, the research evidence as a whole remains mixed, with some purported benefits unsupported by the research (see Bolt and Van Kempen, 2011; Joseph, Chaskin, and Webber, 2007; Sanbonmatsu et al., 2011; and Sautkina, Bond, and Kearns, 2012). Much of our recent knowledge about poverty de-concentration comes from research on the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program, a long-term, five-site experiment designed to discern the effects on low-income households of moving with housing assistance from high- to low-poverty neighborhoods. Researchers considered a wide range of potential MTO effects, including on individuals' mental and physical health, employment and economic conditions, educational attainment, criminal and risky behavior, social networks, and living environments (Sanbonmatsu et al., 2011).

MTO provided a wealth of information about the effects of mobility from high- to low-poverty neighborhoods within the context of a carefully designed experiment. The purpose of the experiment was to identify cause-and-effect relationships more clearly. In the social world, however, it is difficult to design such a policy experiment without limitations and to account for all, even most, possible influences on the variable of interest. Researchers have documented these shortcomings for MTO, which among others include the use of neighborhood poverty rate alone to capture troubled living environments, a lack of initial attention to proximate neighborhoods that might affect a target neighborhood, the number of participants, and the differences in site contexts and study designs that muddle the generalizability of the findings (see Briggs, Popkin, and Goering, 2010; and Goering, Feins, and Richardson, 2003). …

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