How Do Neighborhoods Matter? Leveraging MTO Research for Policy Change

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Patrick Semansky / AP
November 7, 2016

When she first moved to Philadelphia in 1991, Dr. Susan Clampet-Lundquist met Robert*, a teenager navigating life in the sometimes violent, often tumultuous, city streets. While watching him structure his life through his Islamic faith and later his time in the Navy, Susan became interested in both the impact neighborhoods have on the young people who live in them, and the resilience that children possess despite their circumstances. Throughout years of qualitative research with teenagers in Philadelphia and Baltimore, Susan and her colleagues continually asked themselves, “How do neighborhoods matter?” Dr. Clampet-Lundquist asked the audience this same question at a panel discussion relating to youth resilience and her new book, “Coming of Age in the Other America.”

Along with her co-authors, Stephanie DeLuca and Kathryn Edin, Dr. Clampet-Lundquist conducted interviews with people who moved out of Baltimore public housing via the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) research study in the 1990s. Baltimore, like all major American cities, has been shaped by real estate practices and redlining that prevented economic growth and prompted the decline of dense urban neighborhoods. So what happens when people can suddenly pick up and move outside of the poverty-stricken environment and experience life in a wealthier metropolitan area?

The economists and sociologists that studied MTO found that both adults and teens who moved to more affluent, less violent neighborhoods were less likely to experience stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues. In the long term, kids who took part in MTO were more likely to go to college, get married, and raise kids in a less impoverished neighborhood.

What can we take away from this research? The researchers suggest that legislatures focus on three policy areas:

  1. Expanding funding for low income families in opportunity-rich neighborhoods
  2. Supporting extra-curricular programs in schools and nonprofits
  3. Supporting evidence-based programs that guide students through post-high school opportunities

The Baltimore Housing Mobility Program is one example of how families formerly residing in neighborhoods with lower-functioning schools, considerably fewer resources, and a higher concentration of poverty can feasibly move to safer, better-resourced areas. Dr. Clampet-Lundquist suggests focusing efforts on inclusionary zoning and targeting LIHTC funds to opportunity-rich communities.

The second policy recommendation is supporting arts, sports, academic, and extra curricular programs in schools, nonprofits, and neighborhood recreation centers. These programs can help youth find an identity project, especially one in connection with a caring adult, thus allowing them to cope with the difficulties of life in high poverty environments. This kind of support for youth programs is especially necessary after years of funding reductions in public education.

The third policy recommendation is to support evidence-based programs in high schools that offer students accurate information about what options are available to them after graduating, the role community college can play in their education, and harms of exploitative for-profit trade schools.

Neighborhoods matter. The environments that kids grow up in matter. Our youth matter. It’s time we prove to our youth that their education, safety, and mental health matter to us. To learn more about effective reforms, check out The Atlantic's recent feature on Dr. Clampet-Lundquist's research.


*Name has been changed.

Fels Institute of Government

The Fels Institute of Government
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Philadelphia, PA 19104

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