HUD, in the role of Mr. Higgins

The Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing Program (MTO), the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s twenty-year attempt at a real-life Pygmalion, has failed. The department experimentally relocated low-income families and children out of poverty-stricken areas and into ones populated by the middle class. Unfortunately, these children did not achieve better schooling results. As said by the journal Cityscape, “MTO’s effects on achievement and related schooling outcomes were disappointing, particularly among the youngest cohort of children.” The results, while disappointing, are no big shocker. This program takes an approach that is far too hands-off for comfort. Imagine Pygmalion’s Mr. Higgins asking Eliza Doolittle to come live in his house but neglecting to provide her with lessons in grammar or etiquette.

MTO provided 4,600 families in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York with housing vouchers and additional housing counseling to help them move out of impoverished neighborhoods. The goal of the program is to help these families “choose modestly priced private housing in neighborhoods that can offer ample educational, employment, and social opportunities.” But there is no guarantee that the schools in the new neighborhood will be much better or more affluent than the ones in the school districts they left. The Cityscape analysis found that the socioeconomic makeup of the schools to which the program moved children was still very similar to the schools in their old neighborhood; for example, youth in the control group, on average, attended schools that were around 90 percent minority enrollment, while youth in the study moved to schools with an average of 82 percent minority enrollment. The one evident effect of the program was an increase in health awareness among female participants. I imagine there must be more efficient ways to pursue that particular outcome.

A direct way to improve educational opportunities is to improve schools no matter their location and give parents the options to choose their child’s academic setting; transporting low-income kids into schools with middle-class and rich kids seems a far more roundabout and uncertain way to improve these kids’ schooling.

The program—even if it had been successful—was neither replicable nor a long-term solution. If you airlifted every poor and deserving family out of Washington Heights and dropped them into Astoria, the larger social structure would still be in need of repair: Parents in need of better jobs, better healthcare, and a true sense of community.  Poverty and scholastic achievement are problems of both nature and nurture, not ones of simple fixes that can be accomplished with a change of location.

Instead of experimenting with programs that are based on the (faulty) premise that changing a person’s surrounding will change his outcomes, why not invest and replicate known examples of success? The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) comes to mind. Schools and programs like HCZ work not just because of the vast sums of money behind them but also because of the mixture of health initiatives, parental support, and neighborhood engagement—all components that MTO conspicuously lacks.

Social engineering is no respite for the disadvantaged, nor is a change in zip code an antidote for the opportunity gap. You cannot simply teach individuals and children to become middle class—you have to help them become so by putting together a communal effort and investment that does more than just teach etiquette and grammar or provide a new home in a better neighborhood. HUD, unlike Mr. Higgins, lost its bet about producing better outcomes. Let’s hope they don’t make the same bet again.

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