Moving from very poor neighborhoods improves health

A cyclist rides a moped past a palm tree-lined street in an Alhambra neighborhood, east of downtown Los Angeles in California.

Kai Ryssdal: The Department of Housing and Urban Development did an experiment almost 20 years ago. It offered families who needed housing vouchers to pay the rent. There was, of course, a catch. They had to move to a new neighborhood -- a better one -- with a poverty rate below ten percent.

The government's been tracking those families ever since.

Today, it released the data, which shows what a new neighborhood can change and what it can't.

Mary Harris has the story.


Mary Harris: University of Chicago economist Jens Ludwig has tracked these families from the start.

Jens Ludwig: To get and keep a good job a bunch of things need to go right in your life. So changing neighborhoods didn’t necessarily change the mom’s schooling attainment and her attractiveness to employers in the labor market who are looking for high school graduates or people with some college training.

But other things did change. Families who moved were 40 percent less likely to be extremely obese. Their rates of diabetes plummeted (doctors say these changes may be the result of reduced stress).

And they were happier -- Professor Ludwig says that’s worth a lot.

Ludwig: Moving from a high poverty neighborhood into a lower poverty neighborhood increases your happiness by about as much as an increase in earnings of about $13,000 a year.

It seems like good news, but more and more Americans are moving the opposite way. The last decade saw a boom in neighborhoods with a high concentration of poor residents.

Elizabeth Kneebone studies this trend at the Brookings Institution.

Elizabeth Kneebone: By the end of the 2000s, we were looking at almost nine million people living in very poor neighborhoods. So we saw an increase of over 2.1 million, almost actually 2.2 million people in those areas.

Which means those Americans could be missing out on the benefits of living a healthy life -- and that’s worth something.

In New York, I’m Mary Harris for Marketplace.

About the author

Mary Harris is a New York-based radio and television reporter specializing in public health and medical technology. Follow her on twitter @marysdesk.

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