Moving to Opportunity: What Happens When You Move Poor Kids to Rich Neighborhoods?

An interesting program called the Moving to Opportunity Experiment explored what happens when you move poor families in impoverished neighborhoods to more affluent neighborhoods. A little more than twenty years later, Harvard analysts looked in on the children of the MTO experiment. The results were quite fascinating:

The Moving to Opportunity (MTO) experiment offered randomly selected families living in high-poverty housing projects housing vouchers to move to lower-poverty neighborhoods. . . . We find that moving to a lower-poverty neighborhood significantly improves college attendance rates and earnings for children who were young (below age 13) when their families moved. These children also live in better neighborhoods themselves as adults and are less likely to become single parents. The treatment effects are substantial: children whose families take up an experimental voucher to move to a lower-poverty area when they are less than 13 years old have an annual income that is $3,477 (31%) higher on average relative to a mean of $11,270 in the control group in their mid-twenties.

Also of interest, children who were moved after their thirteenth birthdays tended to do worse than their low-income neighborhood peers. Moving to Opportunity effectively benefitted only children. The experiment is fascinating, and it raises many important questions. The first one of course is why do poor children have more success by moving to a better neighborhood?

That’s a complicated question. The most obvious answer would be that there are just more opportunities in more affluent neighborhoods. There are more jobs, better schools, less crime. That may be true. Why then do poor families stay in low-income neighborhoods? Could they not leave if they wanted to?

And that brings up the thorny issue of the negative impact on poor teens. If the increased success was a mere matter of opportunity, wouldn’t that hold true for teens, perhaps even more than for children? Why was the move so detrimental to teens?

Like so many other issues concerning poverty, this issue might be more psycho-spiritual than material. Having material opportunities is less important to success than having the right mindset. That has been evidenced in history billions of times. How many of the most financially successful people in the world grew up with a silver spoon in their mouths? Not many, actually. In actuality, unearned affluence (also known as privilege) is often a severe disadvantage to success and innovation.

So why did the children in the Moving to Opportunity experiment succeed? The most important factors here were not material. They were mental. I think there are two major reasons they found more success in life: First, they were motivated by their new environment to want something more. The surrounding affluence that filled their teenage siblings with resentment and bitterness filled them with determination.

Second, and probably more important, there were fewer cultural discouragements to success. In a poor neighborhood, success often comes at the expense of relationships. It is an incontrovertible fact that an adult who has done nothing with his life surrounds himself with people of similarly low ambitions. Otherwise, he would feel bad about himself at a stage in life when there’s little he can do about it. This sour grapes effect should not be underestimated.

It’s the reason people leave ghettos when they have a drive for success. It’s not just that they want to live in richer neighborhoods or have greater opportunities. It’s that the people in poorer neighborhoods often reject them! Poor people have pride too, and pride, as is so often the case, works against them.

The Moving to Opportunity researchers believed the most important aspect of the new community was its material affluence—providing equal material opportunity. But it is likely the most important part of the new community was its spiritual influence.

In fact, the applicant motivations for joining the Moving to Opportunity program bear this out:

The primary motivation of the applicants was “getting away from drugs and gangs.” This was listed as the first or second reason for applying by more than three-fourths of the applicants who reported extremely high victimization rates.

So it was not so much the financial hardships of poor communities that the Moving to Opportunity families wanted to escape. It was the spiritual and cultural influences.

The same poor child who would continue in poverty in a poor neighborhood already has the material tools and opportunities necessary to succeed. Often, all that is necessary is for him to leave the cultural and familial influences that work to keep him down.

College graduation, good grades, a clean criminal record, sticking with one woman, caring for your own children, working a job, and other marks of respectability and success are currently frowned upon in almost all poor communities. Why are these things frowned upon? Because most poor adults rejected them, and they call the young people trying for them uppity. The older losers in poor communities tell the young people aspiring to greatness that they have lost their sense of identity.

I understand why. One of my best friends has an ambitionless loser for an older brother. Jealousy and pride have motivated the older brother to keep his younger brother down. The older brother regularly sabotages the younger brother, manipulating him into wasting time, carousing, and drunkenness. The older brother regularly dismisses any of the younger brother’s efforts and achievements. He says those efforts are not going anywhere. Honestly, the best thing my friend could do is leave, but he has a misplaced and tragic loyalty that causes him to stick around “for the sake of his family.” And it really is stalling out his life in many ways.

The same dynamic is at play in many poor neighborhoods. Young people long for acceptance in the community, and they are told by ambitionless older role models that loyalty to the community means rejecting the tools and means of success. And the result is that poor communities get poorer and poorer with every passing generation.

Poverty is generational and cultural more than material. That’s the tragic irony of the racial narrative in America. Of all the people trying to keep poor black communities down, poor black communities are by far the most effective. No amount of money will change that. Poverty has material symptoms and material consequences, but its nature is not material. So its solutions are not material either. What needs to change? The mindset, hearts, and culture of individuals in poor communities.

As strange as it is to say, the most important thing poor people need for the sake of their children is humility. You would think that would come easily given the material circumstances. If only the problem were material…