The result of a 1976 Supreme Court decision, the Gautreaux program allowed low-income black public housing residents in Chicago to receive Section 8 housing certificates (vouchers) and move to private-sector apartments either in mostly white suburbs or the city. Between 1976 and 1998 over 7,000 families participated. The Gautreaux program presents an unusual opportunity to examine the outcomes associated with low-income families’ moves to more advantaged neighborhoods with better labor markets and schools. Most research on neighborhood effects has focused on statistical analyses of the relationship between neighborhood attributes and many life outcomes. However, even after extensive statistical controls, one cannot be certain about the direction of causality or whether unmeasured factors might influence relationships. Housing mobility programs such as Gautreaux are one way to separate these effects.
Gautreaux participants circumvented the typical barriers to living in suburbs, not by their jobs, finances, or values, but by acceptance into the program and quasi-random assignment to the suburbs. The program provided housing subsidy vouchers, but not employment or transportation assistance. Unlike the usual case of working-class blacks living in working-class suburbs, Gautreaux permitted low-income blacks to live in middle-income white suburbs. Participants moved to more than 115 suburbs throughout the 6 counties surrounding Chicago. Suburbs with a population over 30 percent black were excluded. Few high-rent suburbs were excluded by funding limitations of Section 8 certificates.
Prior research on Gautreaux shows significant relationships between placement neighborhoods and subsequent employment and education. A study of children finds that, as young adults, suburb movers were more likely than city movers to graduate from high school, attend college, attend four-year colleges (versus two-year colleges), and (if they were not in college) to be employed and to have jobs with better pay and with benefits (Rosenbaum 1995). A study of 330 Gautreaux mothers finds that suburban movers had higher employment than city movers, but not higher earnings, and the employment difference was especially large for adults who were unemployed before the program (Rosenbaum 1995). Using administrative data to locate present addresses for 1,504 out of 1,507 movers, research finds that 65 percent of suburban families remained in the suburbs an average of fourteen years after placement. After premove individual and neighborhood attributes were controlled, program placement strongly predicted racial composition of current neighborhood (DeLuca and Rosenbaum 2003) and public aid receipt many years after moving (DeLuca and Rosenbaum 2003; Keels et al. 2005).
Because researchers had no input into implementation, families were not formally randomly assigned to conditions. However, placements approximate random assignment, because families were assigned to neighborhoods on a first-come, first-placed basis (according to reports of housing counselors and administrators in the 1980s). Few significant differences were evident with individual attributes, but premove neighborhood attributes show statistically significant differences (2 of 9 comparisons). This may indicate selection bias, although even random assignment programs find some substantial differences (Goering and Feins 2003, table 7.1). Other studies have examined multiple neighborhood level indicators, detailed preprogram neighborhood differences, and inter-generational effects (DeLuca 2006).
Based on Gautreaux, the Moving to Opportunity program (MTO) was an experiment with pre- and post-move data and random assignment of low-income families to three groups—one required to move to low-poverty areas, one with open-choice use of housing vouchers, or a control group given no vouchers. Like Gautreaux, MTO found large effects on mothers’ and children’s feelings of safety and other attitudes. MTO also found large effects on mothers’ and daughters’ health.
MTO had smaller effects on mothers’ employment and children’s education than Gautreaux. However, MTO measured outcomes in the late 1990s, during a strong labor market and strong welfare reform, so, although MTO found no difference between groups, it found an astounding 100 percent employment gain for the control group. One possible interpretation is that virtually everyone who could work was doing so, and residential moves had no additional effect for that reason.
Program attributes may explain other findings. While few MTO children attended schools with above-average achievement, nearly all Gautreaux children did. While families made short moves that allowed interaction with prior neighbors (only 16% of moves over 10 miles), Gautreaux’s distant moves (90% over 10 miles; average 25 miles) prevented such interaction. While Gautreaux families moved to stronger labor markets, MTO treatment group moves were not necessarily to different labor markets.
The Gautreaux studies suggest the possibility that large changes of environment can have large impact. The MTO results do not contradict that lesson; few MTO moves entail distant moves to above-average schools or much better labor markets. However, MTO research provides strong evidence about modest changes of environment. While both studies indicate enormous effects of residential moves, the differences between the findings indicate the importance of being alert to design features of the program and to historical context influences.