RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In the 1990s, the U.S. government embarked on an ambitious social experiment to try to help people get out of poverty. The Moving to Opportunity Program gave housing vouchers to single mothers so they could raise their kids in areas with better job prospects and better schools. The hope was the families would thrive.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Now a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that boys from these families did not thrive. They found that the move took a toll on their emotional well being, a toll not experienced by girls. Ronald Kessler is a professor of healthcare policy at the Harvard Medical School and a lead author of the study. Professor Kessler, welcome to the program. Thanks for coming on.
RONALD KESSLER: My pleasure.
GREENE: So can you start by telling me about the children who were part of this study?
KESSLER: Well, they originally lived in inner city public housing in very high poverty areas. The kids who were studied in this report were no older than eight when the intervention started, but the average age was three.
GREENE: And was the expectation that these families and these kids would do better in more affluent areas?
KESSLER: Well, the hope was originally that the educational opportunities for the kids would increase because of better schools, that the opportunities for the parents finding jobs would increase because they moved to places where there were higher employment rates so that in the long run the kids, as they moved out, would have better socioeconomic achievement than they would have otherwise.
GREENE: But you found these problems as years passed. Describe to me what exactly you found.
KESSLER: Well, we found something that we hadn't expected, which was the effect of the intervention was quite positive for girls, but boys had the opposite effect. Boys were more depressed. They were more likely to have post traumatic stress disorder. They were more likely to have conduct problems if they were in families that were offered vouchers than in the control group that wasn't involved in any kind of move.
GREENE: What could explain that young men who made this move to a more affluent neighborhood tended to be more depressed and had more mental health problems compared to kids who stayed behind in poverty-stricken areas?
KESSLER: Well, it's important to say at the onset that the experiment's job was to see would there be effects, does neighborhood make a difference, and we showed experimentally that it clearly does. Why the effect exists is not something the experiment was designed to give us definitive evidence for, however we were fortunate that we had field workers go into neighborhoods, observe what was going on, and they have some insights into why they think these differences exist.
And their thought is that little girls were embraced by the neighborhoods and seemed to have better interpersonal skills, whereas the boys somehow were thought to be a threat by the community so they were pushed away, and in fact in some cases had worse things happen to them so they had more exposure to fights and so forth than they might have had otherwise.
GREENE: And do you see that, in general, in other ways, that boys are less able to adjust happily to sort of new environments compared to girls?
KESSLER: Well, the kinds of qualitative evidence that our research team came up with certainly seem to suggest that that's the case, at least in this population. Now, that doesn't mean that if a different intervention were developed, if there were some supports given to these boys, preparation or some kind of counseling programs, that they couldn't make a really good adjustment.
We just don't know because it wasn't one of the things we had prepared ourselves for at the beginning.
GREENE: It sounds like what you're suggesting is not to look at this as a failed policy when it comes to these boys, but to really learn from it and look, you know, look ahead to how best the government should be spending money and doing housing programs.
KESSLER: It seems clear that with the kind of money that we're talking about that the government spends on this, $37 billion a year is invested in public housing in America, we've got to do a better job than we're doing now - not just using that money to put a roof over somebody's head, but to figure out how to maximize the benefit and that has to mean developing programs that help these new families integrate optimally into better neighborhoods.
GREENE: Professor Kessler, thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us. We appreciate it.
KESSLER: My pleasure. Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.