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Closing the Opportunity Gap: Housing and Education

October 23, 2019

Challenges in areas ranging from education to the environment, gender to governance, health to housing don’t exist in a vacuum. Each month, Abt experts from two disciplines explore ideas for tackling these challenges in our monthly podcast, The Intersect. Sign up for monthly e-mail notifications here. Catch up with previous episodes here.

Income inequality. Housing affordability. Education achievement gaps. These social determinants of health can impact families over generations. How do we close the opportunity gap to ensure families have the resources and capabilities they need to thrive?

Amy Checkoway and Samuel Dastrup have been investigating this question from two different angles--Housing and Early Childhood Education—and share their insights on this episode of The Intersect.

Read the Transcript:

Eric Tischler: Hi, and welcome to The Intersect. Today I'm joined by Amy Checkoway, who's calling from our Cambridge, Mass. offices, and sitting across from me here in Abt Studio 1 in Rockville, Maryland, is Sam Dastrup. Thank you both for joining me.

Sam Dastrup: Thank you, Eric. It's great to join you this morning.

Amy Checkoway: Likewise.

Eric: Amy's a skilled senior project manager and public policy expert with more than 20 years of experience working on early education, K to 12 education, social service program evaluations and research studies. Sam is an experienced applied microeconomist and leader of research teams examining the effectiveness of approaches to assisting homeless families, low income renters and low income workers seeking additional training.

So, typically on The Intersect, we talk about how colleagues who maybe don't normally get to work together could do so on specific projects tackling singular and significant challenges. What's interesting to me this month is that Amy and Sam are tackling similar challenges simultaneously through different lenses. We're talking about income inequality, housing affordability, achievement gaps in school. These are issues we're struggling with in the U.S., and we know these are the social determinants of health that can impact families over generations. So how do we close the opportunity gap to ensure families have the resources and capabilities they need to overcome obstacles that may arise? Amy and Sam have been investigating this question from two different angles, housing and early childhood education.

So Sam, let's start with you. You've been working on housing mobility. What do we mean when we're talking about housing mobility?

Sam: Thanks. So to start, research shows that neighborhoods make a difference in people's life, that where you live can affect a variety of life outcomes. And, specifically, there's a growing body of evidence that documents that low income children benefit from spending more of their childhood living in neighborhoods that have lower poverty rates, that have schools that have higher proficiency rates and in neighborhoods that have lower crime.

So the idea of housing mobility is that households essentially choose to locate or relocate to neighborhoods that provide more opportunity for improved life outcomes. The mobility term is kind of linked a little bit to the idea of income mobility as well, that there's potential for intergenerational improvements in families and in households outcomes, specifically household income and wealth and those indicators.

Eric: So there's the idea of moving to places where there are better opportunities, right? How do we help people get to this place of opportunity?

Sam: My most recent research around mobility is in this idea of just the rent barrier around whether folks can move. And so, Housing Choice Voucher program is the largest rent subsidy program that the federal government runs. It assists around two and a half million children in the U.S., which is about 20% to 25% of of folks that are eligible. And historically, there's been one rent level for an entire metropolitan area. And so HUD did a demonstration. They did an experiment where they allowed higher rent subsidies in areas that had higher rents, which correlated with a lot of our opportunity measures, and they became somewhat less generous in zip codes that have lower rents.

I had the chance to do an evaluation of this, to go and research and say, "Well, what did this do in terms of where folks ended up living?" And the big picture takeaway is that it didn't really change how often folks moved, but when households receiving vouchers--and especially families with children--did move for other reasons, they ended up more frequently in higher opportunity and higher rent neighborhoods. And so they were able to use these vouchers to move into neighborhoods that were in the upper range in our opportunity measures. So this is an example of a policy tweak that HUD has made that potentially takes away some of that barrier in terms of the rent being too high.

Eric: Right. I want to get Amy in here, but let me ask you one last question. What are the benefits that we're seeing once they make that move?

Sam: Yeah, you bet. The benefits here that are kind of motivating these policy tweaks come from research around studies that Abt was part of decades ago because intergenerational outcomes take 20 to 30 years to see and to measure. And so what's been found in what's called the moving to opportunity experiment followups by a team--Chetty, Hendren and Katz--have shown that children that spent their early childhood and more years of their early childhood in higher opportunity neighborhoods have better income earnings and post-secondary education outcomes and household formation outcomes--a lot of these things that we think of as intergenerational improvement--n their early 20s and 30s. The idea here, then, is that folks that are now able to move with their kids to these higher opportunity neighborhoods will hopefully have these same benefits 15 to 20 years down the road, that these kids will have better earnings and employment outcomes and better relationships and household formation outcomes 15 to 20 years from now.

Eric: Fantastic. And so that's a great segue to Amy, because as you mentioned, not everyone chooses to move. Not everyone can qualify.

Sam: And [only] 20 to 25% of folks that are eligible even have access to the subsidies.

Eric: Right. So what about everyone else who wants to have some of these opportunities that have come out of these neighborhoods? And I'm thinking of early childhood, and Amy, I know that's something you've been working on in terms of local solutions. You want to speak to that?

Amy: Yeah. I think that, assuming that not all families are able to move out of their neighborhoods, we've been involved in evaluating a really exciting model in Massachusetts that has really entailed making serious investments in local communities, particularly some of the most disadvantaged communities in the Commonwealth. And, moreover, trying to provide high quality early education to some of the families who are really the most disconnected from the system, both in terms of being both very poor and never having the opportunity to be in formal childcare in the past.

And so we just finished an evaluation of this model to expand preschool, which involved community-based organizations setting up new preschool classrooms in collaboration with their local public school districts, who provided intensive professional development and coaching to teachers. So excitingly, we found strong positive impacts and we found that early academic skills--so their early literacy, their early mathematics, as well as their vocabulary development--was significantly improved by having access to this program.

Along with this, because of the federal resources available, these programs really invested in the parents of these kids and provided them with both direct services--including educational opportunities, parenting classes, opportunities to connect with other families--as well as referrals to other kid supports and services within the community. And we found some positive economic outcomes after families had been in this program for a year in terms of employment and income, so not only were kids more prepared for school--we know that if kids are already behind when they enter kindergarten, they're much more likely to remain behind, really, for the rest of their K through 12 career. But we also think that this program contributed to families being in a better position to continue to help support their households and potentially be more mobile in the longer term.

So I think the really exciting thing about this intervention is that we found large impacts that are really comparable to those that have been found in public school preschool programs, and this was a really exciting partnership within communities between systems. So these are community-based organizations and public school districts working together that do not typically collaborate, and so I think it's exciting to think about the possibilities for scaling up this kind of approach.

Eric: Great. And you were talking about mobility. Are we talking about the same kind of mobility that Sam's talking about or are we talking about families that are able to invest and build better lives in place, as it were--where they are?

Amy: Right. I mean, I think this is really an approach that is trying to build resources within communities. And so we don't know what the longer term outcomes will be for these families, whether or not...sort of, again, because they may be more likely to be employed and be making more money, if that will lead to them staying within the community or not. But again, I think this is really an approach that emphasizes trying to draw on the resources that are already in the community, and the public school system is--compared to a lot of the childcare programs that are operated in community-based programs--relatively well-resourced. It's really an approach that sort of meets people where they are. We know that families prefer to have their kids in childcare that's close to their home. I think often these families are working in their communities and so this really provides opportunities like those in more affluent communities to these parents.

I think a real challenge is that this federal grant allowed a lot of states to have the opportunity to invest much more substantially in early childhood programs than is typically available, and so these kids, through the grant in Massachusetts, they were able to invest about $18,000 per child, on average. And I think a challenge is, once these sort of large federal grants go away, it's really hard for communities to sustain that kind of investment, given that the early childhood system in general is very under-resourced.

Eric: Right. So let me ask both of you--because I think in both cases we're seeing some exciting results from programs that have a finite capacity, right?--what might the future hold in terms of figuring out what the next steps are?

Sam: I think that there's some great work being done on the other barriers to housing mobility that I mentioned earlier. So, in addition to the economic barriers, there's often social barriers and logistical barriers. And so there's some great new research coming out as well as some efforts in HUD's research agenda moving forward to look at ways to improve the logistics of these moves, to communicate with landlords and to provide information to households about apartments that they might be able to now afford given the changed rent structure of the program, as well as social barriers, kind of thinking. There's some great sociological work. Anna Jefferson here at Abt Global is one person that's talked to a lot of folks about these ideas around a sense of belonging and support networks and the role that that plays. So I think thinking about these barriers and how to overcome them and keeping in mind that we want policies that are designed in a way that they don't contribute to the problem, I think those are the things that I'm thinking about moving forward.

Eric: Great. How about you, Amy?

Amy: Yeah. I think there's increased recognition both federally and at the state level where a lot of the action happens in terms of early childhood sort of programming and policy making that an integrated system is the only way to sort of be able to ensure that kids are getting a high quality experience. Really, prenatally through, again, the time they enter school. And so there's a continued push within state agencies for agencies to be working together. Historically, the system has been very siloed because there are different federal funding streams going to different programs across different state agencies and those programs are not sort of working together to support families holistically.

I think, again, this Massachusetts model is a great example of a model that really sort of forced local collaboration but also focused on the kids and families and all of the needs that they may have and sort of meeting them where they are. So I think there's pretty broad-based support for investing in early childhood because research continues to show the importance of these early experiences for kids to succeed in school and in life, and I think, again, integrated approaches to serving families and their kids by sort of braiding together all the resources that exist is hopefully the way of the future.

Eric: Great. Well, thank you both for joining me. I really love that, just between the two of you alone, we're really looking at sort of this whole lifespan of success for families from early childhood through the parents and the families and hopefully to subsequent generations. So I think it's great to get together and sort of lay that out on the table and take a look at it. And actually, Amy, you touched on themes that we discussed in last month's episode in terms of systems working together more closely to help families. So, boom: our first multi-month intersect! And on that note, thank you both for joining me.

Sam: Thank you.

Amy: Thank you very much.

Eric: And thank you for joining us at The Intersect.

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