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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University February 9, 2004 | Vol. 33 No. 21
Rethinking a Neighborhood Maxim

First-year master of public policy students Aaron Katz, Sarah Ficenec and Anand Vimalassery in Better Waverly, a neighborhood where a high poverty rate does not equate with a low quality of life.

Policy students find that low poverty rates may not mean better living

By Kevin Sottak
Institute for Policy Studies

Location, location, location. In the last decade, this cardinal rule of home buying has also been embraced by the people who make federal housing policy. Two programs developed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development aim to move low-income Americans out of distressed neighborhoods and into better neighborhoods where, presumably, they will have a better chance of becoming self-sufficient.

For example, HUD's 10-year-old Moving to Opportunity demonstration program provides vouchers to help some families leave public housing — but only if they move to a neighborhood where the poverty rate is less than 10 percent. Another HUD program provides subsidies to landlords who admit low-income residents, but only in neighborhoods where the poverty rate doesn't exceed 20 percent.

On its face, this seems like wise policy. After all, public officials have long believed that better neighborhoods make better neighbors. But ongoing studies of participants in the Moving to Opportunity program, which operates in five cities including Baltimore, have yet to find the expected payoff.

According to a recent study by Johns Hopkins public policy graduate students, the problem may be with HUD's underlying premise that a neighborhood's poverty rate is a good indicator of its overall quality.

"We found that neighborhoods with lower poverty rates were not necessarily better places to live," said Aubrey Winterbottom, one of 29 student-investigators who produced the study. "Some of the neighborhoods with relatively high poverty rates — more than 40 percent — appeared to be in better shape than neighborhoods that were much closer to the [20 percent] threshold set by HUD."

For example, Better Waverly, located several blocks east of Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus, had one of the higher poverty rates in the study (44 percent), but it scored as well or better than neighborhoods with poverty rates of 27 percent or less on several quality measures, including crime rates, percent of abandoned structures and median residential property sale price. In fact, Better Waverly's violent crime rate was on par with that of Lower Hamilton, which has a poverty rate of only 17 percent.

In all, the study examined 25 Baltimore neighborhoods covering a broad swath of the city, from Falstaff in the northwest to Cherry Hill in the lower harbor, and from Cedonia in the northeast to Dickeyville on the far western edge of the city. The students worked in five teams, each studying five neighborhoods varying from low poverty (a rate of less than 20 percent) to high poverty (a rate greater than 40 percent).

Over 12 weeks, the students combed through three decades of data covering eight domains of neighborhood quality, including demographic and socioeconomic characteristics, the physical and social environment, economic activity, crime, health, school quality and the neighborhood's image. In addition, they visited each neighborhood to gather observations and interview residents.

Not only was the poverty rate a poor predictor of neighborhood quality, the students found, but there was no consistent evidence of a threshold effect at 10 percent, 20 percent or even 40 percent. Even the trend in poverty over time was not a consistently strong marker of quality. In fact, said student Sarah Ficenec, the study suggests that neighborhood quality is too complex and dynamic to be adequately captured in a single metric.

The study has attracted the attention of the Baltimore Mayor's Office, the Baltimore chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the general counsel's office at HUD, among others. Students presented their findings to an audience of public officials, city agency staff, community groups and neighborhood residents in December. A final report of findings will be published in March.

During the question-and-answer period following the presentation, Robert Kenison, HUD associate general counsel for community development, praised the students' efforts and asked how they would revise the current policy to achieve HUD's goal. The students suggested that decisions about which neighborhoods to invest in are best made at the local level, using a much more varied set of indicators than simple poverty rates.

The study was undertaken as part of the Introduction to Policy Analysis course taught by Sandee Newman, director of the Institute for Policy Studies. Designed to prepare students for the rigors of real-world policy analysis, the project also reveals how policy is sometimes guided more by hopeful assumptions than solid evidence.

"At the start of the project, I thought that [the link between neighborhood quality and poverty] was common sense," student Aaron Katz said. "I now know that common sense is not always so common."

Text slides used in the presentation can be viewed online at


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