Most American neighborhoods have never lived up to the cozy ideal of community depicted by Norman Rockwell. That fantasy is particularly out-of-touch for the urban poor, who, at worst, have lived in settings overrun by crime, decay and drugs.

In two groundbreaking mega-studies, social scientists are examining how factors in poor urban neighborhoods affect a particularly vulnerable population: minority children and adolescents. These studies coincide with a major federal policy effort to improve conditions for the urban poor by tearing down urban housing projects and working to better integrate communities along racial and class lines--an experiment that's still in its infancy.

In one study, researchers are part of a government project to help poor families move to better communities. The study is showing dramatic results: Child and adolescent arrests for violent crime decreased by as much as 40 percent when the young people's families were offered the chance to move to affluent areas.

In the other large-scale study, social scientists are looking within poor communities to ascertain what helps some children fare well--despite where they live--while others are pushed into criminal behavior and academic failure.

These studies provide a fresh look at a subject tarnished by partisan bickering about race, class and poverty, study investigators say.

"From a research perspective, this research is giving us the best demonstration we've ever had of how neighborhoods affect kids," says Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, PhD, a psychologist and investigator in both studies and Virginia Marx Professor of Child Development and Education at Columbia University's Teachers College.

Indeed, say researchers, both studies show that neighborhood characteristics and family factors seem to have a profound effect on how well children do socially and academically.

'Moving to Opportunity'

The first study is tracking 4,600 families who either stayed in their original poor neighborhoods or moved to more affluent ones, depending on how they fared in a housing lottery. The study, called "Moving to Opportunity," was inspired by a 1970s government-mandated desegregation program in Chicago that helped families move from inner-city public housing to more affluent neighborhoods in the suburbs. In the aftermath of their moves, Northwestern University sociologist James Rosenbaum, PhD, found that adults who had moved to the suburbs had better job experiences and that their children fared better socially and academically.

While the study lacked the ideal conditions to assess what happened to all of the affected families, the results were intriguing enough to spur the federal government to authorize $70 million for a larger version of the project in 1992.

In 1994, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros selected five cities--Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York--as research sites. Families moved to wealthier neighborhoods between 1994 and 1999, and researchers at each site have been evaluating the results at different points along the way. Researchers are also beginning a formal five-year assessment as part of the congressional mandate for the project, and will conduct a 10-year evaluation beginning in 2005 if the project is supported by the new Bush administration.

Researchers at each site used word-of-mouth recruitment, then ran an orientation session where families learned the terms of the study: Some would receive housing vouchers that would help them finance a move to a new location, others would not.

Once families agreed to participate, one-third received no housing vouchers; one-third received vouchers with no restrictions on where they moved; and one-third--considered the experimental group--received housing vouchers plus special counseling and assistance to locate homes in areas with poverty rates less than 10 percent. The counseling entailed 12 to 15 hours of workshops that taught basic life skills such as balancing a checkbook, dealing with potential conflicts with neighbors, caring for a yard and negotiating a lease.

At different points over the next few years, study teams conducted extensive interviews and assessments with parents and children on issues including educational achievement, parenting behavior and mental and emotional well-being.

Strong environmental factors

Preliminary results demonstrate that environment does indeed affect how families fare. After settling into their new neighborhoods, parents and children in the New York site's experimental group reported greater levels of mental and emotional well-being than those who didn't move, says Brooks-Gunn, who is principal investigator at the New York site. By contrast, those who received only vouchers and moved to neighborhoods that were similar to their old ones reported only modest improvements in well-being.

"The most immediate impact of moving was a decline in emotional distress, both for mothers and kids," Brooks-Gunn says of the experimental group. "In terms of everyday living, it appears that life is so much better."

One early finding from the study provides a context for what motivated these families to move, adds Brooks-Gunn.

"Eighty percent ranked the issue of violence and safety for their kids as the first reason they signed up--not the opportunity for better schools or jobs," she says. "People don't feel safe. And from parents' reports, it has as much to do with the fear that something will happen as it does with exposure to actual violence."

Parents in the New York site's experimental group also report a decrease in harsh parenting behaviors such as yelling at or spanking children, a finding Brooks-Gunn believes is probably linked to an increased sense of safety.

"My guess is it's not that these parents are suddenly taking parenting classes," she says. "I think less stress allows you to be more reasonable with your kids--you think you can be less harsh because you don't have to protect them as much."

At the Baltimore site, economists Jens Ludwig, PhD, of Georgetown University, and Greg Duncan, PhD, of Northwestern University, are demonstrating that violent behavior in the experimental group of young people is less than that of young people who hadn't left their old neighborhoods. Based on the young people's arrest records before and after the orientation sessions, Ludwig and Duncan found a 30 percent to 40 percent drop in violent crime arrests in the first three years of the program for the young people whose families had been offered the opportunity to move to wealthier, safer neighborhoods, compared to controls not afforded that chance. On the down side, property crime arrests were higher among the youth who had left their old neighborhoods than among controls, Duncan says, although those figures are beginning to drop.

"Our explanation is that the opportunities to commit property crimes are so much greater in wealthier than in poor neighborhoods," he says. Presumably because of the lack of material wealth, "property crimes aren't reported that often in poor neighborhoods."

From a purely economic viewpoint, the findings imply a vast savings for the criminal justice system, Duncan comments. Violent crime arrests cost $8,000 on average, compared with a few hundred dollars for a typical property crime. His team's findings will appear in an upcoming issue of the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

Chicago human development project

In the other mega-study, researchers from several disciplines and institutions are combining a longitudinal study of 6,500 children ranging in age from birth to 18; a community survey of 9,000 Chicago residents; and systematic social observations of the residents' neighborhoods to examine how neighborhood variables influence children and youth.

The study, called the "Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods," began in 1990 and is in its third wave of data collection. It has resulted in myriad books and papers on findings from the data (for detailed reports on the study, go to http://phdcn.harvard.edu).

In one project experiment, researchers Robert Sampson, PhD, a University of Chicago sociologist, and Stephen W. Raudenbush, EdD, of the University of Michigan's School of Education, roamed Chicago's streets in a sport utility vehicle videotaping and noting the characteristics of 23,000 street segments in 196 neighborhoods. They combined these snapshots of street life--including its sounds, sights and smells--with survey results from those same neighborhoods in the American Journal of Sociology in November 1999. Sampson, Jeffrey Morenoff, PhD, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, and Felton Earls, MD, professor of human behavior and development at Harvard School of Public Health, then analyzed the data in a related journal article that appeared in American Sociological Review in October 1999.

The analysis shows that black and white neighborhoods with similar internal characteristics display one big difference: They are bordered by very different kinds of neighborhoods. Black middle-class communities, for example, tended to be surrounded by more ghetto-like neighborhoods than were white middle-class communities, which, on average, were juxtaposed with far safer, wealthier ones.

Consequently, parents who live in black communities have to strive to pay more attention to keeping their children safe and to keeping control of their children, Sampson says.

"Some of the parents in white, middle-class neighborhoods were quite lax in their supervision of children, but reaped the benefits of child safety simply because they were situated in a large area of advantage," he notes. "The opposite was true for African-American neighborhoods."

In another study reported in the August 1997 issue of Science, team members Sampson, Raudenbush and Earls found that rates of violence were lower in white, black and mixed urban neighborhoods, including poor neighborhoods, that demonstrated what the team calls "collective efficacy." The term refers to social cohesion among neighbors that includes their willingness to take action for the collective good, according to the team.

The Science study, based on surveys of 8,782 residents in 343 Chicago neighborhoods along with police and census data, showed that community behaviors such as adults' willingness to monitor children's play groups, help neighbors and intervene to prevent acts of delinquency all have a positive effect on neighborhood violence.

"I don't think neighborhoods are all that important anymore in terms of our warm and fuzzy notions of what neighborhoods should be like," Sampson says. "But what is still relevant in neighborhoods is the capacity for collective action, including the level of trust and shared values among neighbors."

This capacity for action and connection among neighbors can be framed as a person's psychological sense of community, which includes dimensions of membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and a shared emotional connection, says Colleen Loomis, a community-social psychologist at the University of Maryland­Baltimore County.

Given policy-makers' attention to resolving the public-housing crisis, it's likely there will continue to be concrete changes in poor minority living arrangements over the next few decades, Brooks-Gunn believes. These changes will undoubtedly affect people's psychological sense of community as it relates to their neighborhood and ways they participate in their neighborhood, Loomis adds.

Such changes, Brooks-Gunn asserts, will necessitate continued scrutiny of how these changes affect poor children and families. Many families who used to live in housing projects will likely receive some version of housing vouchers, for example, but without the added counseling provided in the "Moving to Opportunity" experiment.

"Will that be good for kids?" she asks. "We just don't know yet."

Further Reading

For detailed reports on the "Moving to Opportunity" study, log on to the Web site www.wws.princeton.edu/~kling/mto.

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.