Seattle experiment breaks the cycle of poverty - Activate World

Seattle experiment breaks the cycle of poverty

There is an experiment taking place in Seattle that has the promise of breaking cycles of poverty.  It’s simple, inexpensive and involves moving families to neighborhoods with proven records of helping kids do better. The experiment is the subject of a major research study co-written by Professor Raj Chetty of Harvard and published by Opportunity Insights of Harvard.

Lunchtime Conversations:

  • This effort uses big data to pinpoint where children of all backgrounds have the best shot at getting ahead. Can this new capability address the problem of neighborhood disadvantage that has resisted government program intervention for years?
  • Could this mapping of nationwide data be used to identify sites for new Head Start centers, or new neighborhoods for the “Opportunity Zones” created by the 2017 tax law?
  • A larger question is how can business leaders and policymakers convert struggling neighborhoods into places where poor children are likely to survive?


  • Moving from a low to a high-opportunity neighborhood can, by Professor Chetty’s calculation, close almost one-quarter of the gap in lifetime earnings between disadvantaged kids and those who are better off.
  • This research underscores that the common American view that nothing works to address poverty is a fallacy. There are no silver bullets, but there is silver buckshot, and moving kids to better neighborhoods is one of those pellets.
  • Nimbyism, the “not in my backyard” phenomenon, has high societal costs. It not only keeps housing costs artificially high; it also prevents working-class families from moving into some of the very communities that could transform their lives. 


Early word on the experiment’s results has caused a nationwide stir with 21 cities across the country working to start similar programs. While the US spends $44 billion a year on affordable housing, that money serves to perversely concentrate poverty in blighted neighborhoods. 

The experiment shows by applying small tweaks to the administration of housing vouchers, families in living in poverty-stricken areas can move to neighborhoods that aren’t more expensive but afford children a much better chance of thriving. 

The Seattle program had its origins in a national initiative called Moving to Opportunity, which in the 1990s provided vouchers for low-income families to move to better neighborhoods. Early evaluations suggested failure: Adults receiving the vouchers didn’t earn more money.

However, a follow-up study in 2015 shook the policy world. It was true the moves hadn’t helped the adults, but those who moved as toddlers were more likely to go to college, to marry, to earn more money and to pay more taxes — enough to pay for the program with interest.

Professor Chetty has developed an online “Opportunity Atlas” that shows how some neighborhoods around the country, without being more expensive, consistently help children get ahead. 

Seattle’s experiment, called Creating Moves to Opportunity, provides a “housing navigator” who helps low-income families receiving vouchers find homes in better neighborhoods, while also negotiating with landlords and helping to pay security deposits.

There are assistance costs that average $2,600 per household and families were almost four times as likely to use their vouchers to move to a high-opportunity area.

The inexpensive tweaks to the existing housing voucher program amount to only 2.2 percent of the cost of the underlying voucher. They are easily incorporated elements that make vouchers far more effective at breaking cycles of poverty.  

Sources: CityLab, The New York TimesThe New York Times

Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash