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THURSDAY, Sept. 20 (HealthDay News) -- When families were given vouchers to move from impoverished neighborhoods to ones that were less poor, the adults in those families experienced lasting improvements in mental health and well-being, new research says.
And, these improvements occurred even though the adults weren't making significantly more money after their move.
"If you take a family in a high poverty neighborhood and move them to an area where the poverty level is about 13 percent less than where they're currently living, the increase in happiness is about equal to the gain in happiness from a rise of about $13,000 in income," said study author Jens Ludwig, the McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service Administration, Law and Public Policy at the University of Chicago.
And, since the average income was only around $13,000 to start with, the equivalent of a $13,000 increase in income would have a huge impact, she added.
Results of the study are published in the Sept. 21 issue of the journal Science.
Nearly 9 million Americans live in neighborhoods with extreme poverty, according to background information in the study. In the mid-1990s, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) started a program called Moving To Opportunity for almost 5,000 people living in low-income public housing in extremely impoverished areas. The hope was that moving families from very poor neighborhoods to areas with less poverty would improve the overall quality of life. Cities included in the program included Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.
A previous study from this program examined the effect of neighborhood on obesity and type 2 diabetes risk, and found that women who moved to areas with less poverty were 19 percent less likely to be obese and 22 percent less likely to have type 2 diabetes.
For the new study, families were entered into a lottery that randomly selected three groups. One group was given housing vouchers only if they moved to an area where less than 10 percent of the people were living in poverty. The second group received housing vouchers with no restrictions, and the final group received no intervention.
The study included 3,273 people from the original HUD program. About 2,100 were enrolled in one of the voucher groups and just over 1,100 were in the control group that received no intervention.
The average age of the adults in 2007 was 44 for both groups. About two-thirds of the groups were black and the other third were Hispanic. When the program began, about two-thirds had never married, and only one-third had a high school diploma. The average household income was just under $13,000 (adjusted to 2009 dollars).
When the study began, almost half of those interviewed said they were very dissatisfied with their neighborhood, and just over 40 percent reported that a household member had been a crime victim in the previous six months, according to the study. The overwhelming reason cited for wanting to move was to get away from gangs and drugs.
On average, people who received vouchers lived in neighborhoods with 31 percent of residents in poverty, compared to the control group which lived with 40 percent of residents in poverty.
Despite this relatively small difference, those who received the vouchers had better overall physical and mental health, according to the study. They also reported greater well-being or happiness. And, these changes occurred even though those living in less poor areas didn't see significant changes in economic self-sufficiency, welfare receipt or employment, the study found.
"People thought that neighborhood environments didn't matter that much -- that income was the only factor that really matters. But, money doesn't necessarily buy happiness. There are lots of other aspects that are important -- like safety -- that can improve quality of life. Neighborhood environments matter for poor families, even if they don't improve their income," said Ludwig.
Robert Sampson, a professor in the department of sociology at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, said: "Poverty is a very sticky problem. There's a persistent hierarchy of neighborhoods and they're often separated by race and income. In really poor neighborhoods, vast opportunities are closed off and unattainable.
"Yet, the vouchers did help," added Sampson, author of an accompanying editorial in the journal. Although they didn't necessarily improve economic outcomes, they did improve well-being and physical health, he said.
Both experts pointed out that income segregation in neighborhoods has become an increasing problem. They feel that moving significant numbers of people out of those neighborhoods probably wouldn't be feasible or effective.
"One of the key goals is to try to identify the characteristics that could improve people's well-being without moving them. If you look at the baseline surveys, three quarters said that crime was why they wanted to move. They wanted to get away from gangs and drugs," Ludwig said. "So, moving people into safer neighborhoods, or increasing the safety in the neighborhoods where they live, is at least one of the things that's important for happiness and well-being."
Read more about poverty and mental health from the American Psychological Association.