STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Want out of poverty? Move.


In the summer of 1994, my family hitched a U-Haul trailer to the back of my mom's Ford LTD station wagon and drove it to the other side of the country. We went just about as far as you can go without a passport – from the coast of Oregon to central Florida. 

In Oregon, we were surrounded by friends and family, but we were poor. We lived in a public housing project. We paid for our groceries with food stamps. My mom was a part-time community college student, with a daycare business on the side. My dad worked on the back of a fishing boat. My mom wanted to get her bachelor's degree. My dad wanted a job with more stability. Neither could find what they were looking for in North Bend, Oregon in 1994. So we moved. 

The move took us from the mild, rain-soaked Pacific Northwest to the sweltering humidity of the Florida summer in a matter of weeks. I had to learn how to say things like "y'all" and "my bad." I ate grits, and I didn't like them. I missed my old friends, and I was a complete, awkward failure at making new ones. 

It was the best thing that ever happened to me. 

I started thinking about this experience after reading an article in Pacific Standard magazine about how families were affected by displacement in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. 

The storm arrived nine years ago this summer, forcing more than a million people from their homes. Hundreds of thousands were relocated for an extended period of time. Many still have not returned. 

The people most affected by the storm tended to be people living in the poorest neighborhoods of New Orleans. 

But now, Asad L. Asad, a Harvard PhD. candidate in sociology, writes in Pacific Standard that Katrina had an unexpected silver lining for many families: 

Although those displaced had little say in where they would end up, Katrina catapulted some low-income African American families out of neighborhoods characterized by high levels of poverty and into new, non-poor, and racially integrated ones with greater opportunities for socioeconomic mobility.

The findings of this paper build on a previous study (still in draft form) which finds that those whose homes were flooded during Katrina moved to neighborhoods where the median family income was, on average, $9,000 higher than in the neighborhoods they left behind. And, with the move, many families found new opportunities. 

Of course, these benefits for some families came at a steep cost to the city of New Orleans, and to the families who lost loved ones in the storm. 

But this isn't the only research that finds benefits in uprooting families to help overcome poverty. 

Those who moved to low-poverty neighborhoods had lower rates of extreme obesity, lower rates of diabetes and they reported fewer physical limitations than people who hadn't relocated. Adults who moved also had lower levels of psychological distress, and lower prevalence of both depression and anxiety.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development published the final report on a massive, nearly-two decade-long project to better understand the effects of moving out of a high-poverty area. The study enrolled more than 4,600 low-income families in five cities in a randomized housing voucher program. Families who received vouchers were able to move out of public housing projects, and find new homes in neighborhoods with low poverty rates.

When the study concluded, 10-15 years after the families were first enrolled, the families that moved had some surprising benefits. Those who moved to low-poverty neighborhoods had lower rates of extreme obesity, lower rates of diabetes and they reported fewer physical limitations than people who hadn't relocated. Adults who moved also had lower levels of psychological distress, and lower prevalence of both depression and anxiety. 

The study actually didn't find many benefits related to families' economic fortunes. And there weren't many benefits on educational outcomes for kids who had been relocated. But the study explains that may have been because the schools in the new neighborhoods were, on average, only slightly higher quality than the schools those kids left behind. 

Another study found that when family relocation is combined with attendance at a higher quality schools, kids can see major benefits. 

This study, published by the Century Foundation in 2010, looked at outcomes in Montgomery County, Maryland, where those applying for public housing were randomly assigned to homes in very different kinds of neighborhoods. Some families ended up in neighborhoods with low poverty, near school with high academic performance. Other families were not as lucky. 

The study's author, Heather Schwartz, found that those kids who ended up in schools with more affluent classmates had much better academic results than those who did not. Though both groups started out with similar levels of academic achievement, those who randomly landed in the more affluent schools made huge gains. Schwartz concluded: 

Perhaps most important, the children in low-income housing who attended low-poverty schools began to catch up to their non-poor district-mates over the course of elementary school; by the end, they had cut their initial achievement gap in half.

Taken together, all three of these studies show benefits of some kind when families move from high-poverty neighborhoods into more economically integrated areas. But they also all share one feature that makes them difficult to repeat. In all three studies, the families who were relocated received assistance to do so. 

It's not enough to simply say that people living in poverty should move. Many of them would love to do just that, but they don't have the money or the connections to make it happen. 

The National Journal reported in June on some new proposals in Congress that would give families assistance to move from areas with high unemployment to areas with low unemployment. These proposals build off a 2010 paper published by The Hamilton Project, which attempted to estimate the costs and benefits of paying people to move.

This paper proposed offering loans of up to $10,000 to entice families to relocate to areas with low unemployment. Repayment of the loan would be contingent on finding success in a new location. The paper's author's estimate that as many as 62,000 people per year could find jobs as a result of the program. 

But, as those affected by Hurricane Katrina discovered, relocation costs are only part of the challenge of finding a way to resettle in a new area. The research by Asad L. Asad, mentioned above, found that social issues were a major barrier for Katrina victims looking to relocate outside of New Orleans. Asad found that those who were most able to surround themselves with people who had similar experiences and mindset –most commonly these were fellow evacuees – had the best chance of finding success in a new city. 

When my family moved to Florida in 1994, no one paid for us to make the move. But we did have family waiting for us on the other side. My brother, my sister, my parents and I all moved into my grandparents' house for several months before we set out on our own. 

Eventually, my mom made her way through college. My dad got a job working in Florida's booming construction industry. Everything didn't get better right away. And things weren't always on an upward trajectory. But that move is what ultimately led me down my own path to college. What led me to this job. It's the reason my kids might never find out what it's like to live in public housing or pay for your groceries with food stamps. 

I know we were lucky. Not everyone who's poor has the resources to move. Not everyone who moves finds new opportunities. But for many people who are poor, moving can improve the odds of finding success. It did for us. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.