Leaving poor neighborhoods brings health benefits

October 19, 2011

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(Tim Boyle)
Thousands of women left public housing in the 1990s through the Moving to Opportunity program.

Moving from public housing to a better-off neighborhood might come with health benefits, according to a unique study led by Chicago researchers.

During the 1990s, the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development paid for 1,788 women with children to move out of public housing and into low-poverty neighborhoods as part of the Moving to Opportunity program. A comparable group remained in public housing. That set up a perfect experimental situation for researchers, who could now examine how the group who moved fared compared with the control group.

In a batch of data published in the New England Journal of Medicine, they found that women who moved had much better rates – about 20 percent lower – of obesity and diabetes than women who stayed in public housing.

“I was actually surprised by the size of the effects,” said Jens Ludwig, professor of law and public policy at the University of Chicago. “Having the opportunity to move from a high-poverty to a lower-poverty neighborhood had about the same size impact on diabetes as what you see from things like lifestyle interventions or medication.”

The study didn’t examine why that’s the case, but Ludwig said previous research suggests some possible explanations. It could be that poor neighborhoods have worse food options, fewer opportunities for exercise, and higher levels of stress. The study included residents of Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, as well as women from four other cities.