Helping Families Move to Opportunity: A Conversation with Stefanie DeLuca
What zip code you grow up in has enormous predictive power in terms of future life outcomes. And researchers at the Opportunity Insights program at Harvard University, led by Raj Chetty, have done extensive work in recent years mapping how likely children are to move up the economic ladder in neighborhoods across the country. Building off this premise that place matters, the same research team collaborated with housing authorities in the Seattle and King County region to study their attempt to help families in moving to high-opportunity neighborhoods. And a recent Opportunity Insights report suggests the work in Seattle is yielding big results. Spotlight spoke with Stefanie DeLuca, the James Coleman Professor of Sociology & Social Policy at Johns Hopkins University and one of the authors of the recent report, about the results of the study and their implications for public policy moving forward. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How big a difference do neighborhoods make on the life outcomes of children?
Over the last few decades, research has converged to show us that neighborhoods have a sizable influence on the long-term outcomes of children, independent of family background. That means we can intervene on the level of neighborhood location through housing policy.
And how much do we know about what those differences in neighborhoods are and what factors matter?
It’s still an open question and one worth exploring. Some of the work that Patrick Sharkey and Julia Burdick-Will have done points to the importance of violence and its effect on things like children’s academic achievement. A lot of work in sociology and economics has illustrated the importance of racial and economic segregation more broadly, which suggests that the socioeconomic composition of one’s school and community peers also matters for shaping longer term well-being and economic mobility.
All of these factors seem to be in the mix, but we have plenty more to do to understand these mechanisms.
Let’s talk about this particular experiment. How did it work and what did it show?
Building off the research on the importance of neighborhoods, housing authorities in the Seattle and King County areas wanted to design supports to help people move to neighborhoods that correlated with high levels of opportunity. This was an exciting opportunity—that practitioners wanted to use research to improve their programs.
This was a randomized control trial with a control group that got only housing vouchers and an experimental group that got offered additional services if they relocated to higher opportunity neighborhoods. These services included navigators that helped families learn about opportunity neighborhoods, locate housing, and negotiate with landlords.
The share of families in the treatment group that moved to higher opportunity neighborhoods was forty percentage points higher than the control group. That is an enormous gain.
I understand there’s a lot of discussion about the factors preventing people from moving to higher-opportunity neighborhoods. This seems to be a valuable piece of evidence.
Yes, it shows there really is strong demand for moving to high opportunity neighborhoods. We’ve known for a long time that families who receive conventional housing choice vouchers tend not to move to high opportunity neighborhoods. They tend to cluster in higher-poverty neighborhoods and there has been a bit of a puzzle about why. There are obviously barriers in the housing market, whether it’s landlord discrimination, the financial barrier of a security deposit, or other factors, and this intervention seems to address some of these barriers and help families move to neighborhoods that they’d always known were places they would like to go.
This research had a pretty unique interdisciplinary approach with you overseeing qualitative research to complement the quantitative findings. Can you talk about this work and what it told you about the experimental findings?
So far, we have conducted interviews with over 100 families from the control and treatment groups. In part, we were interested in understanding the mechanisms underlying the experimental results . How did families respond to the different elements of the intervention? What resonated with them? What seemed to be the most salient and most effective aspects – from their point of view – in helping them find housing in higher opportunity neighborhoods?
And the interviews also helped us think more conceptually about models of neighborhood choice and how it is that families go about selecting neighborhoods. The qualitative work helped us generate these ideas and I think coupling that with the experimental design gave us a much stronger set of tools and these richer findings.
We worked with an incredibly diverse set of families. Families that came to Washington State from at least fourteen different countries alongside local families of widely varying backgrounds.
One of the things that struck me was how much support, relief, and confidence families received through the program’s supports. They felt like someone cared enough to try to help them and that was really powerful and came through in the interviews.
And are the interventions that Seattle put in place things that could be easily scalable in other places?
That’s what we’re trying to figure out. There is strong interest from other cities in trying to expand this, including a consortium of housing authorities interested in doing mobility programs in very different kinds of places. So, we’ll see because there is no doubt this would operate differently in different markets. But it’s very striking and encouraging that this worked so well in a market as tight as Seattle’s.
The next phase of the experiment is looking at what elements of the intervention could stand alone, which will hopefully provide further support in creating replicable models.
Stefanie DeLuca is the James Coleman Professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University.