When a Better Neighborhood Is Bad for Boys

Research shows that when poor families move into more expensive housing, girls’ lives improve while boys’ get worse. What explains the difference?



Sept. 26, 2018 11:10 a.m. ET

See the column on the Wall Street Journal site

Imagine you’re a single mother living at or below the poverty line in a troubled neighborhood. If you want to shield your teenager from drinking and mental distress, should you try to move to a better area or stay put? The answer depends on whether your teen is a boy or a girl, according to a new paper published in the journal Addiction.

The lead author of the study, University of Minnesota epidemiologist Theresa Osypuk, investigated the drinking habits and mental health of teenagers whose families lived in public housing in the late 1990s. About two-thirds of the families were randomly chosen to receive housing vouchers, allowing them to move into better areas.

Between four and seven years later, the researchers found, adolescent girls who had moved into more expensive neighborhoods were far less likely to drink to excess than girls who remained in public housing. But boys whose families had moved binged more. This surprising finding challenges the assumption that behavioral risks increase with economic hardship and that poverty affects women and men the same way.

It all started with a controversial social experiment called Moving to Opportunity. The goal was to give the mostly female-led families living in public housing a leg-up in the labor market, not by improving their skills but by improving their housing. From 1994 to 1998, almost 5,000 low- income families in five cities—New York, Boston, Chicago, L.A. and Baltimore—were offered the chance to participate in a lottery.

Those who opted in were randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first group received a voucher that tripled their rent budget. With this windfall they were expected to move into a nicer neighborhood. A second group got the same voucher along with relocation counseling. A third was the control group: They stayed in public housing and presumably nothing would change for them.

The results were disappointing at first. To the chagrin of the policy wonks who designed the program, improving where women lived had absolutely no effect on their employment. But it had a big impact on their health. “Rates of obesity were lower, markers of diabetes were better, mental health was better,” Prof. Osypuk said.

The second eye-opener was that moving to better neighborhoods affected men and women differently. “The households were mainly led by moms, who saw mental health benefits, and their girls did, too. But the boys saw no mental health effects, or negative effects,” said Prof. Osypuk.

The key factor was how vulnerable people were before the move. Boys are developmentally more fragile than girls, with higher rates of learning and behavior problems. That’s one reason why the well-being of the boys in the voucher groups tanked, according to Prof. Osypuk. Boys who moved out of public housing not only drank more but also showed higher rates of distress, depression and behavior problems, according to a 2012 paper that she and her team published in the journal Pediatrics.

“Boys have mental health disadvantages, and the stress of moving adds insult to injury,” Prof. Osypuk said. Just when these vulnerable boys most needed predictability, their social worlds were upended. “They moved down in the social hierarchy and hung out with riskier boys,” speculated Prof. Osypuk. Meanwhile, girls who moved to better neighborhoods experienced fewer sexual stressors and adapted to their new circumstances more easily.

When it comes to moving out of poverty, it would seem that equal treatment for everyone is only fair. This research, however, hammers home the idea that one size does not fit all.