The Dream Revisited
Discussion 19: Public Housing and Deconcentrating Poverty

Discussion 19: Public Housing and Deconcentrating Poverty

May 2016

The nineteenth discussion debates what we should do about high-poverty, distressed public housing developments in light of recent research from the Moving to Opportunity Program about the costs of concentrated poverty.


  • From Public Housing to Vouchers: No Easy Pathway out of Poverty

    by Lawrence J. Vale, Nicholas F. Kelly

    Given the troubled history of HOPE VI, it is hardly surprising that policy makers and politicians are eager to find evidence that there might be better alternatives to project-based solutions. This helps explain the widespread attention given to a study released in May 2015 by economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence Katz, which extended the analysis of the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) experiment and found later-in-life economic benefits for children who move out of public housing with vouchers before the age of 13. This creative and careful analysis represents a major contribution to the study of how neighborhoods impact the life-chances of children. However, as important as this study is, it has been taken to mean much more than the authors themselves actually claim. We believe that it is crucial to put the results of MTO in the broader context of poverty in the United States, as well as the actual choices facing policy makers.


  • Effects of Moving to Opportunity: Both Statistically and Socially Significant

    by Nathaniel Hendren

    In contrast to the portrayal of our results discussed in Vale and Kelly, we believe the impacts of giving families a voucher to move to a lower-poverty neighborhood on the adult outcomes of their young children are large—statistically, economically, and socially. The tradeoff between place-based and people-based policy is of fundamental importance, but unfortunately there is a dearth of empirical research that is required to assess this tradeoff. While future work will hopefully illuminate whether other policies can provide similar or greater benefits, MTO provides a useful benchmark against which alternative policies should be judged.

  • Moving (Both People and Housing) to Opportunity

    by john a. powell

    The evidence is now greater than ever that mobility strategies are the best way to improve individual and family life chances.  Life chances are shaped by many inputs. As such, many place-based strategies, such as reinvesting in public housing, are insufficient to transform the full range of resource deprivations that accrue in the lowest opportunity environments.  With the exception of renovating or rehabilitating public housing sited in neighborhoods with declining rates of poverty and improving conditions, physical investments simply won’t dramatically change individual and family life chances.  In contrast, mobility strategies, properly supported, show great promise.

  • Housing Policy is a Necessary but Insufficient Response to Concentrated Poverty

    by Robert J. Chaskin

    However important affordable housing is, we also need to examine the fundamental limitations of housing policy as a response to urban poverty. Researchers and policymakers should recognize the need for broader investment in neighborhoods themselves. Affordable housing development can be effectively coupled with broader efforts at community development, but even this broadened policy must be coupled with a renewed attack on the structural factors that create and reproduce urban poverty.

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