Let’s talk millions. I was passed a paper from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner the other day that tells me there are 2.3 million children living in poverty in the UK. (The figure rises to 3.6 million if the After Housing Cost (AHC) measure is used).
About the same time, I read this article in Science which begins by telling us that:
‘Nearly 9 million people in the United States live in “extreme-poverty” neighborhoods in which at least 40% of residents have incomes below the federal poverty threshold.’
In both cases these are scary numbers of people in poverty. And we probably all assume that to help people who are in poverty, you really need to help increase their income and/or decrease their costs.
But the research reported in the Science article, based on a large scale experiment in the US, challenges that assumption by suggesting you can improve quality of life significantly by helping people to move out of ‘distressed neighbourhoods’ – without necessarily increasing their income.
Here’s the gist of the research. Between 1994 and 1998, a US programme called Moving to Opportunity (MTO) randomly assigned vouchers to a large number of low-income public housing families living in high-poverty areas in five U.S. cities: Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. The vouchers enabled families to move to another area, and many chose to do so:
‘By far the most common reason applicants reported signing up for MTO was to get away from gangs and drugs, with around three quarters reporting this as one of their top two reasons for wanting to move.'
The researchers used ‘a comprehensive measure of people’s quality of life as they perceive it, using adult self-reports of subjective well-being (SWB)' and found ‘sizable positive effects‘:
‘moving from a high-poverty to lower-poverty neighborhood leads to long-term (10- to 15-year) improvements in adult physical and mental health and subjective well-being, despite not affecting economic self-sufficiency.’
In other words, a statistically significant and sustained change in reported sense of well-being (‘a measure that represents a comprehensive assessment by the participants themselves of the extent to which their lives have been affected‘) resulted from moving out of a challenging area, even though the families were still in poverty.
The researchers conclude:
‘The [MTO] program failed to produce detectable impacts on family income. But if the goal is the broader one of improving the well-being of poor families, then policies that seek to ameliorate the adverse effects of dangerous, distressed neighborhoods on poor families are worthy of careful consideration.‘
This could be politically tricky. Do we want our policy makers to assume that the misery of poverty can be ameliorated more readily by a programme of physically moving some families around, than by addressing economic inequalities?
I don’t think we want them deciding that poverty is a housing allocation problem which can be deemed to be the responsibility of social landlords. It’s great that we now have some evidence of the impact of living in unsafe and stressful environments; but we still need to see some action to transform such places, and to address the increasing problem of poverty itself.