Neighbourhood influences and place-based intervention: The impact and potential of community on well-being

How much does our local community influence living standards, inclusiveness, health? Can communities activate resources to pull themselves, or their vulnerable residents, out of poverty? Can they improve health standards, reduce crime, increase life opportunities? What are the strengths and limits of community-based development, and do regional/national policies encourage community action? How well are those policies coordinated with local potential?

The literature abounds with stories of local community action. However the learning at a policy level seems to be limited. These initiatives tend to be experiments which are difficult to evaluate or to scale up. Often the type of organizing carried out locally is directly related to the structure of governance in the country –  whether municipal governments have social program or planning responsibility, whether national/state/province/region governments have clear legislative mandates and what their accountability structure is.

We will explore the theme of local action in this and future issues of ISPM. In this issue we look at important experiences in Canada and the USA, which have been subject to evaluation.  We focus on the US housing voucher system, which has an objective of permitting recipient families to move to less-disadvantaged neighbourhoods. We also start to decipher the learning from a major social innovation initiative in Canada (Vibrant Communities) which aimed to activate and coordinate local resources in order to reduce poverty in several Canadian cities over a ten-year period.

The US Housing Voucher Experience

The simple point, then, is that our country’s housing policy is more radical than is sometimes appreciated, more radical precisely because it evinces a nontrivial commitment to desegregation and deconcentration. Does our education policy likewise commit to desegregation? Certainly not to the same extent. Does our welfare policy? Not at all. But our housing policy does. Although it’s sometimes a commitment more honored in the breach than in the observance, it’s nonetheless an achievement of social science that it’s honored at all. (part of an opening editorial comment in  “Pathways: A Magazine on Poverty, Inequality and Social Policy” Spring 2013, Stanford Center of Poverty and Inequality,  .David Grusky, Michelle Poulin, Senior Editors

 The contributors to this issue, all leading figures, ask the simple but important questions: Are voucher recipients moving to better neighborhoods? Are they less likely to be unemployed or in poverty? Is their health affected? Are new “inclusionary zoning policies” getting poor children into good schools?

US housing policy is very interventionist, pursuing broad objectives of housing affordability, as well as specific objectives for influencing the behavior and life trajectories of families and children. It is not only to provide shelter, but to change the nature and the context of the shelter. The two evaluative summaries which follow provide some insight on what is achieved.

Why Concentrated Poverty Matters: Assessment of the Moving to Opportunity Experiment Lisa Gennetian, Jens Ludwig, Thomas McDade, and Lisa Sanbonmatsu See Source above

In what is considered to be one of the largest “gold standard” social experiments in the USA, The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recruited more than 4600 families in high-poverty public housing projects in the mid-1990’s to participate in a project entitled “Moving To Opportunity” (MTO). These families were randomly assigned into two experimental groups and a control group, in order to determine what affect their vouchers would have on their mobility choices. One experimental group was provided a (traditional) voucher subsidizing them to move into private housing without restriction as to neighbourhood, while the other was also provided “special” vouchers but permitted only (and with counseling assistance) to move into a low-poverty neighbourhood. The control group received no special provisions.

After ten-fifteen years, 63% of the traditional voucher group had relocated, and were in neighbourhoods with about 25% lower poverty rates than the control group. About 47% of the special voucher group had moved and were in neighbourhoods with about 50% lower poverty rates than the control group.

“moving with a low-poverty voucher increased the chances of having a college-educated friend by about one-third, reduced the local-area violent crime rate by about one-third, and reduced the chances of having seen drugs used or sold in the neighborhood by about two-fifths”. (p12)

But some surprising results: Over the ten-fifteen year period, the employment rates, and the school outcomes of children, were almost identical across the three groups involved in the experiment.

These were two of the policy goals identified in the legislation authorizing the formation of HUD. But while the neighbour differences associated with different relative poverty levels did not appear to influence employment and schooling outcomes, the influences on the health of the families were significant:

Moving with an MTO low-poverty voucher reduced the risk of extreme obesity by about one-third. These MTO moves also reduced the risk of diabetes (as measured by blood samples taken from the program participants) by over 40 percent (p12)

Another way to think about the size of these impacts is to note that they are similar in magnitude to what we see from the leading medical treatments for diabetes, including medication (p12) … Moving with either a low-poverty voucher or traditional voucher in MTO reduced the risk of major depression by over one-quarter. These impacts compare favorably with what we see from best-practice medical treatment for depression. The effect on mental health from moving to a lower-poverty neighborhood is not so different from that of taking anti-depressants like Prozac. (p13)

The authors conclude that, contrary to what may be popularly thought, helping people to move out of concentrated poverty neighbourhoods may not reduce poverty, but it will result in better health outcomes and improved quality of life.

Do Housing Vouchers Work? Robert Haveman, see Source above

In the USA, families living on less than 50% of the median income of their area are eligible to go onto a wait list for housing vouchers, which subsidize approved private rentals such that the family pays 30% of their income for rent. The USA also subsidizes private developers to produce housing targeted to the low-income population.

Like most policies, the Section 8 program has a variety of consequences for voucher recipients, including effects on labor market performance, housing mobility, neighborhood quality, household composition, and child care usage. In a large research effort supported by the MacArthur Foundation, my colleagues (Deven Carlson, Thomas Kaplan, and Barbara Wolfe) and I—all affiliated with the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—have studied these effects. Our results inform the continuing debate over the direction of national housing policy and the effects of tenant- versus place-based housing subsidy programs.(p15, Source above)

The research used a longitudinal database of 350,000 low-income families in Wisconsin, and followed families that received a housing voucher between 2000 and 2003, for several years after. Recipients were able to move to better neighbourhoods with better high-school retention, lower poverty rates, and lower unemployment rates. Their vouchers gave them more income-after-rent, by reducing their rent, but also functioned as a 30% tax on subsequent income. The researchers note that relocation can temporarily reduce earnings. Moreover, the voucher may reduce the number of earners in the household, as more earners would result in a decrease of the subsidy.  It was not observed in the study if this might also increase the number of total households requiring income support. They conclude that housing vouchers, in their form as studied, do achieve the objective of having people live in better housing and better neighbourhoods, but do not increase earned income, and may have some perverse effects, in the kinds of incentives established. They suggest that small adjustments such as having tenants sign a lease addendum requiring them to be employed or actively seeking work, may overcome the perverse incentives.

From the two studies summarized, it seems that changing neighbourhoods may not improve economic status, but may improve health and quality of life. They may also provide some insight into the kinds of improvements where neighbourhood effort might be rewarded.

The Canadian Vibrant Communities (VC) project 2002 – 2012

This initiative was launched as a nationally coordinated network of “comprehensive community initiatives” (CCI’s).  CCI is a concept pioneered in the USA as a follow-on to community development models, and aimed variously at overall community improvement, poverty reduction, crime prevention, and the situation of children.

VC was supported financially by the J W McConnell foundation (one of the largest Canadian foundations with an active interest in improving social conditions and reducing poverty) and assisted with research and policy support by the Caledon Institute of Social Policy. The Tamarack Institute provided overall leadership, strategy, and organizing support. The VC project was one of the most ambitious projects to be initiated in Canada by charitable organizations and aimed to mobilize the residents and resources of several Canadian cities to fight poverty. The description and comments that follow are introductory. We will take closer looks in future issues.

The project provided substantial funding and organizing assistance to local “trail builder” groups in thirteen cities. The CCI strategy guided the communities through extensive processes of consultation, goal development, community buy-in, planning and implementation of the plans, over a ten-year period. Conceptually, the CCI process calls for each community to develop a “theory of change” which would be the foundation for their plans and initiatives, and would also support their ongoing evaluation process. This approach fit well with the concept of a “developmental evaluation process” which the McConnell Foundation promotes. Both concepts permit the communities to change their plans as they go along, in order to incorporate new learning, fix mistakes, or adapt to changing circumstances. The evaluation process adapts as well, although it also serves to remind participants of their original intentions and their theory of change.

Vibrant Communities would provide funding and coaching to local collaborative planning tables to reduce poverty according to local priorities. It would also engage the participants in a national learning community.

Two end-point evaluation reports provide extensive detail on the challenges, difficulties and successes of the processes in each city. For those who may wish to be involved in such undertakings, there is a great deal of advice for dealing with the challenges of coordinating and sustaining effort among individuals and organizations, and the kind of supports they most appreciate from their national partners. There are success stories on developing community responses to specific problems, such as providing low cost bus passes and special transportation to help low income people get to where jobs may be available. The success of these local groups to build alliances and involvement with businesses and local government are underscored, as well as their ability to keep a collective awareness of such concepts as fair wages and family wages.

The final report concludes that the national supports were a good investment in money, time and energy. Supports were important to Trail Builders’ local poverty reduction efforts, and as community dialogues around poverty gained momentum, supports helped consolidate local awareness and knowledge around poverty reduction and ultimately contributed to the emergence of constructive conversations about poverty….

Collaborative and community based learning translated into valuable strategies in multiple communities, and important community achievements were realized. (p9) See reference below

There appears however, to be a disconnect between initial expectations and eventual interpretations of the main objectives of the overall initiative. The beginning of the final report states: As 13 communities from across Canada experimented with new and innovative approaches to poverty reduction, they emphasized a focus on reducing (not alleviating) poverty. (p10)

At the end of the report, is the statement Vibrant Communities was launched in order to achieve an ambitious goal: exploring, mining, and disseminating a new practice.”(p69 Source below)

The evaluation report does not provide quantitative before and after measures of poverty in the targeted cities. Nor does it provide quantitative evidence of poverty reduction, although it does suggest that several thousand low-income people could benefit from measures adopted as a result of the projects.

As we said, there is more to learn from this great initiative, including whether the efforts of dedicated community leaders can overcome the economics of poverty. Is place-based community organizing able to mobilize the breadth of resources required to change the fundamental nature of inequality?  We will look more deeply at the VC experience, and will also be looking at other place-based intervention strategies, including the Healthy Cities/Health Communities experience (originally sponsored by the World Health Organization) as well as the USA “Enterprise/Opportunity Zone” experiences, (and now, from President Obama’s December 4 speech, “Promise Zones”) the Zones Urbains Sensibles (ZUS) experiences of France, and several others, in future issues.

Source: Inspired Learning. An Evaluation of Vibrant Communities’ National Supports 2002 – 2012 by Jamie Gamble, Imprint Inc. ( Copyright © 2012 by Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement. See also  or  VC Creating Vibrant Communities: How Individuals and Organizations from Diverse Sectors of Society are Coming Together to Reduce Poverty in Canada. (

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