Moving poor families to better neighborhoods doesn’t improve jobs, education but does boost happiness

A new study suggests happiness is one of the primary benefits of poor families moving to better neighborhoods:

When thousands of poor families were given federal housing subsidies in the early 1990s to move out of impoverished neighborhoods, social scientists expected the experience of living in more prosperous communities would pay off in better jobs, higher incomes and more education.

That did not happen. But more than 10 years later, the families’ lives had improved in another way: They reported being much happier than a comparison group of poor families who were not offered subsidies to move, a finding that was published on Thursday in the journal Science.

And using the gold standard of social surveys — the General Social Survey, in which researchers have questioned thousands of Americans of all income levels going back to the 1970s — researchers even quantified how much happier the families were. The improvement was equal to the level of life satisfaction of someone whose annual income was $13,000 more a year, said Jens Ludwig, a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago and the lead author of the study…

“Mental health and subjective well-being are very important,” said William Julius Wilson, a sociology professor at Harvard whose 1987 book “The Truly Disadvantaged” pioneered theory about concentrated poverty. “If you are not feeling well, it’s going to affect everything — your employment, relations with your family.”

This seems to fit with findings from other studies looking at programs like the Gautreaux Program in Chicago or the Moving to Opportunity program that took place in a few big cities. The children of these movers/participants may have better jobs, incomes, and educations down the road but there is not much of an immediate payoff in these areas.

It is too bad Wilson doesn’t go further with his comments. What exactly does better well-being translate into? Improved or more stable family life? Better social relations? Could improved well-being translate into better jobs and higher education down the road?

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