The Problem with Moving to Opportunity in One NYC Map

Moving to Opportunity was the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development study that showed mixed effects from incentivizing poor households to move to less-poor neighborhoods. It is often treated (including by me) as the Gold Standard study of the effects of neighborhood integration on the outcomes of poor families. I was aware of two existing criticisms of the intervention they tested:

a) The families in the experimental condition didn’t actually move to much richer neighborhoods.

b) It was paternalistic to tell the families they could only use their Section 8 voucher for certain (lower-poverty) neighborhoods.

I saw a presentation by one of Raj Chetty’s colleagues, however, where he showed this map showing the most common residences of the control group, Section 8 group, and experimental group in New York City:


That’s…remarkable. The Control group, which was supposed to be showing the effects of being in a poor neighborhood, was on 112th street right off of Central Park.

King Towers, Harlem

Yes, it was in a public housing project, but this is literally a short walk or even shorter train ride from many of the richest addresses in the country. For example, Columbia University is a 10-15 minute walk away, and The Dakota, the building John Lennon lived in when he was killed, where a penthouse was recently listed at $115 million, is a 9 minute train ride and a five minute walk away:

Environment of Concentrated Poverty, According to Moving to Opportunity

This isn’t to say that the families living in King Towers weren’t experiencing significant obstacles: they were poor and living in a public housing project after all. But to treat those obstacles as the effects of concentrated neighborhood poverty is just nuts, especially if Wakefield in the Bronx is supposed to represent the high-neighborhood income condition:

The Lap of Luxury, According to Moving to Opportunity


I don’t know if the four other cities included in Moving to Opportunity had similarly silly counterfactual conditions, but it certainly puts a little more credence in the idea that Chetty and his colleagues are picking up some effects of neighborhood conditions that Moving to Opportunity missed.

5 thoughts on “The Problem with Moving to Opportunity in One NYC Map

  1. Seems to me like the assumptions, definitions, categories and models behind their statistics are so far removed from real world experience that it would be hard to expect useful conclusions. I’ve been very interested to read Chetty’s observasations, but I’m not convinced that his “county level” data set provides fine enough data to be able to gather useful conclusions. I’d be much more interested in seeing mobility trends gathered within specific school districts. Within a county there are just too many differences, social, economic, ethnic, etc. Between neighborhoods and school districts things change enormously. But I imagine we could assume that if young people are socialized in a particular school with a particular potential peer group, that’s where they acquire many of their expectations and values. Particularly that’s why so many work so hard and spend so much to get into the “better school district.”

    I’d appreciate you sharing your frank opinion of what the families actually get by moving to “better” neighborhoods. I don’t mind real talk either.

    For the young people growing up on assistance, I imagine the worst things about living among poor people is the bad behavior that disrupts a peaceful productive life but also the lack of role models who are more successful. The irony of “mixing things up” is that most people try to avoid living among poor people for exactly theses reasons. It’s probably not unfair to say that many perceive them as “toxic waste” so much so that they go to great lengths to save and spend great amounts to be able to afford “good” neighborhoods where they can safely “insulate, insulate, insulate” from many potential bad influences. Now I’m under no illusions that there are no bad influences among the middle and upper classes, but what happens when you take some of the “toxic waste” and you give them a free ticket to “insulate, insulate, insulate” villages? Does the mere proximity to better neighbors mean that they’ll actually mix socially and they’ll be able to take advantage of their better situation? Or is it that it merely gives them an opportunity to flee the 5 – 10 %* of the population in “toxic-waste” ville that actually makes life so unpleasant and harsh there?

    I assume this fraction because I’ve read some accounts of teachers at the worst schools say that their toughest classes aren’t actually all bad kids, but only 5 -10% or them are real trouble-making hooligans who lead the kids down an unfortunate direction. Is there any way to filter the families who get the opportunity to relocate to “insulate, insulate, insulate” villes in order to keep out theses troublemakers? And if it were possible to filter out the troublemakers, then why don’t we just do that and banish them altogether so those less fortunate places are transformed from “toxic waste” to hopeful almost overnight?


    1. I’d agree with pretty much all of that. I think Chetty and his colleagues are capturing *something* important about the effects of place, but calling it “diversity” (in a positive sense) seems totally at odds with their findings, which seem to be the benefits of being around a lot of middle-class white kids (regardless of who you yourself are) rather than the benefits of mixing per se. One thought is that it’s not so much about “the bad apples” as it is about the % of kids with something on the ball. I had a few kids who got involved in crime later on over the years, and honestly it wasn’t so much the kids who were most difficult or angry as kids who didn’t have enough going on where they could benefit much from school- very low academic ability kids with enough social skills to make street life interesting to them, to the point they eventually got in trouble. At a policy level, there doesn’t seem like an easy solution to that, unless we think there’s a better (eg, vocational) track for non-academic kids that will engage at least some of them and keep them out of trouble.


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