Research Article

Neighborhood Effects on the Long-Term Well-Being of Low-Income Adults

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Science  21 Sep 2012:
Vol. 337, Issue 6101, pp. 1505-1510
DOI: 10.1126/science.1224648

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Location, Location, Location

It seems obvious that a person's residential neighborhood will influence their sense of well-being, but it has been difficult to nail down cause and effect. Ludwig et al. (p. 1505; see the Perspective by Sampson) describe the analysis, 10 to 15 years onward, of a large-scale social experiment carried out in five U.S. cities in the mid 1990s. Several thousand residents of poor neighborhoods were given housing vouchers that could only be used if they moved into much less poor neighborhoods. In comparison to a similar group of individuals who did not move, those who did experienced substantial improvement in their subjective well-being.


Nearly 9 million Americans live in extreme-poverty neighborhoods, places that also tend to be racially segregated and dangerous. Yet, the effects on the well-being of residents of moving out of such communities into less distressed areas remain uncertain. Using data from Moving to Opportunity, a unique randomized housing mobility experiment, we found that moving from a high-poverty to lower-poverty neighborhood leads to long-term (10- to 15-year) improvements in adult physical and mental health and subjective well-being, despite not affecting economic self-sufficiency. A 1–standard deviation decline in neighborhood poverty (13 percentage points) increases subjective well-being by an amount equal to the gap in subjective well-being between people whose annual incomes differ by $13,000—a large amount given that the average control group income is $20,000. Subjective well-being is more strongly affected by changes in neighborhood economic disadvantage than racial segregation, which is important because racial segregation has been declining since 1970, but income segregation has been increasing.

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