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Cascade: No. 68, Spring/Summer 2008

Research Examines Schools and Uneven Opportunities

The three research sessions discussed in this article provide evidence on the ways in which the residential neighborhood environment may affect individual and household well-being. They also examine what we know about policies and programs that might potentially improve outcomes for households whose options are negatively affected by their neighborhoods. The first session considers education; the other two look at strategies specifically designed to provide households with a neighborhood environment that offers better opportunities.

Schools and Neighborhoods: Research and Policy

Jens Ludwig reviewed research on interventions that attempt to narrow the performance gap between students from disadvantaged and affluent backgrounds. Two interventions he discussed, early childhood education and class-size reduction, increase educational inputs for disadvantaged children. Both appear to boost test scores initially and to generate positive long-term life outcomes in areas like earnings or criminal activity, even when testscore gains fade over time.

Ludwig also discussed three interventions aimed at increasing the efficiency with which available inputs are used. Some “whole school reforms,” which attempt to restructure the learning process, appear to provide benefits of the type already discussed. Teacher accountability policies are associated with gains on performance measures but may have unintended consequences, such as misconduct by those administering exams. Increasing the percentage of effective teachers in schools serving disadvantaged children requires administrators to identify teaching effectiveness and follow hiring practices leading to the desired result.

Despite some caveats on program design, Ludwig and his co-author are cautiously optimistic that expanded implementation of some of the interventions would provide results justifying their costs. They stress, however, that even successful intervention will only narrow the performance gap, not eliminate it.

Paul Jargowsky’s research focused on two factors that may contribute to lower performance by disadvantaged children, the within-school environment the student encounters – including both school resources and classmates – and the student’s neighborhood, which may affect achievement through such avenues as the role models it provides or the values it fosters. Untangling the effects of these factors has proven difficult because the characteristics of the within-school environment and the neighborhood environment tend to be highly correlated, but Jargowsky and his co-author draw on a multiyear data set compiled by the Texas Schools Project whose large size helps to mitigate this problem. Preliminary findings indicate that the within-school environment has a larger direct effect on student performance than the neighborhood environment. Nonetheless, neighborhood characteristics such as poverty rate and percent of neighborhood residents with college degrees do have a direct and significant effect. Moreover, Jargowsky notes that neighborhood characteristics are a key determinant of a number of aspects of the within-school environment, such as the student’s school peers, and thus have a further, indirect effect on a student’s performance.

Dealing with Uneven Geographies of Opportunity, Strategy 1: Neighborhood Revitalization

Ingrid Gould Ellen presented preliminary results of research that supports a widely held but previously untested perception that lowincome central city neighborhoods experienced a revival in the 1990s. Ellen and her co-author examined the extent to which such neighborhoods showed large economic gains or losses in each of the three decades between 1970 and 2000.1 (The authors designated a large change as one in which neighborhood income as a percentage of metropolitan income changes by at least 10 percentage points.) In the 1990s, low-income neighborhoods were about 2.5 times more likely to experience large gains than large losses, a reversal from the two previous decades, when large losses were about three times more likely than large gains. Exploratory analysis suggests that large gains in the 1990s were more likely in metropolitan areas where poverty and crime fell the most, the share of immigrants was largest, and low-income housing tax credit units increased the most. Ellen cautioned that economic gain in a neighborhood does not indicate whether lowincome households who lived there at the start of the decade are better or worse off.

Place-based investment in neighborhoods where opportunities are limited is one strategy for alleviating the uneven geography of opportunity. Mark Joseph reviewed the literature on a particular form this strategy might take, mixedincome housing development. He also discussed his Chicago-based research on HOPE VI projects, public housing projects typically redeveloped as mixed-income developments with fewer public housing units. He conducted interviews with developers, social service providers, other stakeholders, and residents of those sections of the developments that have reached occupancy stage. Lowincome residents reported improved quality of life, though a substantial number did not expect the income mix to provide opportunities beyond improved housing. Joseph found little social interaction across income groups, one mechanism by which it has been posited that low-income opportunities might increase. Other early findings include the successful marketing of mixed-income projects to higher income households; difficulties in marketing units to households that were relocated from pre-HOPE VI public housing units during the redevelopment process; the complexity of the development process; and the dampening effect of the current housing crisis on this development process.

Dealing with Uneven Geographies of Opportunity Strategy 2: Programs That Move People Out of Concentrated Poverty

An alternative strategy to place-based investment for improving the options of households living in neighborhoods with limited opportunities is to help them move to places where opportunities are better. The final research session was devoted to HUD’s Moving to Opportunity Demonstration (MTO), which was set up to test the effects of this strategy on the well-being of poor families. Eligibility for the demonstration, conducted in five large cities,2 was restricted to families living in subsidized housing projects in high-poverty neighborhoods.3 Participation was voluntary. Families applied between 1994 and 1998 and were randomly assigned to one of three groups: an experimental group receiving Section 8 housing vouchers that could be used only in low poverty areas; a Section 8 group receiving vouchers with no geographical restrictions; and a control group that did not receive vouchers but continued to receive project-based housing assistance.4

Lisa Gennetian discussed findings from a 2003 interim evaluation of MTO, focusing on the comparison between the experimental and control groups. Compared to those in the control group, families in the experimental group tended to live in lower-poverty and safer neighborhoods and experienced lower rates of adult depression and obesity. Teenage girls in the experimental group had a lower incidence of psychological distress than their counterparts in the control group, though this was not the case for males. No significant effects on employment or earnings were found and there was little difference between the experimental and control groups in terms of children’s school achievement. Gennetian also provided an overview of the final evaluation of MTO, which is currently underway and which she co-manages.5 It will focus on long-term effects of MTO and the mechanisms by which they play out. A particular area of interest will be children who were very young at the start of the demonstration, since children who grow up in low-poverty areas from infancy and early childhood would be expected to show greater effects than children who move at age 10 or older.

Xavier de Souza Briggs presented research that integrated data from interviews, ethnographic fieldwork, and quantitative sources to explore the puzzle of finding no employment effects in the interim MTO evaluation. He noted that the expectation that employment effects would be found was based on three assumptions.

First, the spatial mismatch between residential location and the location of low-skilled jobs would be reduced for families that moved. But in some cities, relocation actually decreased employment access as families that moved left areas with dense concentrations of low-wage jobs accessible by good public transportation or moved farther from areas experiencing entry level job growth. Difficulties in accessing employment were reinforced by difficulties in finding accessible, affordable child care.

Second, families that moved to low-poverty areas would develop social networks in their new neighborhoods that helped in finding and maintaining jobs. But interviews indicated that the casual interactions these families had with their neighbors did not serve this purpose.

Third, social norms in the new neighborhoods would encourage work. Briggs noted that relocating enabled some young people to build more diverse friendships and a broader repertoire of “soft skills” that they perceived to be important for upward mobility, notwithstanding some pain in acculturating to new social expectations in the new locations. Briggs and his co-authors argue that for relocation to more effectively foster positive labor force outcomes, it must be supported by programs providing access to jobs, training, child care, and transportation.

The findings on psychological distress among teenagers described earlier in this section were based on an analysis of survey data from all five MTO sites. Susan Clampet-Lundquist repeated this analysis using survey data for a single site, Baltimore. She found no meaningful difference in psychological distress between girls in the experimental and control groups, but found that boys in the experimental group were more likely to experience psychological distress than those in the control group.

Clampet-Lundquist then used indepth interview data collected from two groups of Baltimore teenagers to examine factors that might underlie psychological distress. One group was a subset of experimental-group teenagers whose families had used their vouchers to move from their original neighborhoods; the other was a subset of control-group teenagers. There were strong differences in the experiences described by the two groups. Sources of family conflict tended to be more serious for control-group teenagers, who also reported abuse, problems with anger, and neighborhood violence more frequently. Clampet-Lundquist did not find pronounced gender differences among teenagers within the experimental group. She stressed the complementary nature of survey and interview data for understanding outcomes that might arise from an MTO-like initiative.

  • 1 They used census tracts as neighborhood units and defined low-income neighborhoods as tracts with mean income below 70 percent of metropolitan area income.
  • 2 Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York.
  • 3 The term “subsidized housing projects” includes both public housing and privately owned, publicly subsidized projects. High-poverty neighborhoods are defined as those with poverty rates of 40 percent or more, while low-poverty neighborhoods are defined as those with a poverty rate below 10 percent.
  • 4 Forty-seven percent of the experimental group and 68 percent of the Section 8 group actually used their vouchers to lease a unit.
  • 5 This evaluation is being undertaken by a team of researchers associated with the National Bureau of Economic Research, with support from HUD and a number of other public and private agencies and foundations.

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