Public Release: 

Neighborhood residence tied to mental health

Center for Advancing Health

A new study of an innovative federal housing program found that parents who moved to neighborhoods with low levels of poverty reported significantly less mental distress than parents who remained in high-poverty areas.

Boys who moved to neighborhoods with less poverty scored better on several measures of mental health as well, according to the study by Tama Leventhal, Ph.D., and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Ph.D., of the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia University in New York.

Their study appears in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

"Moving to Opportunity," a project that the Department of Housing and Urban Development sponsored in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, assigned families living in public housing in neighborhoods with poverty rates exceeding 40 percent to one of three randomly chosen groups.

The first group received federal Section 8 housing vouchers to subsidize rent in the private market, but usable only in areas where less than 10 percent of the residents were poor. They also got special counseling to assist with their moves. A second group received Section 8 vouchers to move to the neighborhoods of their choice, which tended to be moderately poor. The third group did not receive vouchers and remained in public housing in very poor neighborhoods.

The Moving to Opportunity project began in 1994, and Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn interviewed 550 families in New York City between 1998 and 2000. More than 90 percent of the parents were women, half were African American and about 45 percent were Latina. Their average age was about 35.

Parents in the first group reported less physical and social disorder (trash, graffiti, public drinking, abandoned buildings and public drug use and dealing) and more satisfaction with their neighborhoods compared to the group that stayed in the housing projects. They also had fewer symptoms of distress and depression and their children were significantly less likely to report problems related to anxiety and depression.

Those in the second group, who received the Section 8 vouchers to relocate to neighborhoods of their choice, moved to better neighborhoods. But the differences in localities were only half as great as those recorded by the group that moved to low-poverty neighborhoods. Both parents and children showed a slight improvement in mental health measurements compared to the group that did not move, but not as much improvement as the first group.

Boys did better on some mental health standards, but the researchers found no significant group differences for girls. They speculate that girls may have been somehow more sheltered from the effects of the neighborhood.

While Moving to Opportunity appeared to have had a beneficial effect on mental health, Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn say, it had no effect on parental employment, welfare receipt or income. The advantages of moving to a low-poverty neighborhood may be attributed to reduced community violence and disorder or improved community resources -- better schools, health services, housing, parks and sports facilities.

"Our study suggests potential mental health benefits from this policy," Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn say, "especially for families who relocated to low-poverty neighborhoods."

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BY AARON LEVIN, SCIENCE WRITER
HEALTH BEHAVIOR NEWS SERVICE

Support for the study was provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Russell Sage Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Health Behavior News Service: 202-387-2829 or http://www.hbns.org.
Interviews: Tama Leventhal, Ph.D. 212-678-4030 or tl91@columbia.edu, or Barry Rosen, executive director of external affairs, at 212-678-3176 or bmr13@columbia.edu.
American Journal of Public Health: 202-777-2511 or http://www.ajph.org.

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