How Moving to a Higher-Income Neighborhood Impacts Health and Well-Being

A follow-up study extracts key health policy and practice lessons

Dates of Project: July 2010 to June 2013

Description: Moving to Opportunity, run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the mid-1990s, was a housing relocation experiment that enabled families from impoverished communities in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City to relocate to higher income neighborhoods.

Researchers Jens Ludwig, PhD, at the University of Chicago, and Greg J. Duncan, PhD, at the University of California, Irvine, examined the policy implications of Moving to Opportunity’s long-term effects on the health and well-being of participating families.

Key Findings and Policy Implications:

“The findings help highlight for policymakers the importance of broadening their conception of the goals of anti-poverty policy, to include health and other aspects of well-being rather than just focusing narrowly on income poverty.”—report to RWJF

The opportunity to move from a high-poverty to a lower poverty neighborhood was associated with:

  • Large and potentially important reductions in the prevalence of extreme obesity (BMI > 35) and diabetes among adults. Given the extreme costs of these conditions, this finding raises the possibility that public health interventions like Moving to Opportunity could generate substantial social benefits.

“These results suggest the possibility that the growing exposure of Americans to distressed neighborhoods could be one reason why obesity and diabetes prevalence have been increasing in the U.S. Our results might also help explain why we see disparities in obesity and diabetes prevalence between Whites and minorities in the U.S., given that minorities are more likely than whites to live in high-poverty areas.”—from a blog by Ludwig and Duncan

  • Improvements in adult physical and mental health and subjective well-being, despite not affecting economic self-sufficiency. These findings highlight the importance of broadening the goals of anti-poverty policies beyond a narrow focus on income to include health and other aspects of well-being.

“Neighborhoods by themselves don’t seem to be a strong determinant of a number of outcomes that we think should matter—like employment and achievement and welfare receipt. Greg Duncan, PhD, investigator

  • Increased depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and conduct disorder among adolescent boys and reduced depression and conduct disorder among adolescent girls. The findings suggest that girls may benefit more than boys from moving to better neighborhoods and that policy-makers should consider sex differences when planning housing relocation experiments.